Teacher of the Year Finalists
by Hallie Dean
Neal Middle School
Ursela Jones teaches automation and robotics at Neal Middle School.
Jones initially wanted to pursue a career in coding. After assisting a class of special needs students when she was in college, Jones fell in love with the classroom.
She feels that the greatest reward of teaching is the relationship that she builds with her students.
For Jones, the greatest difficulty of teaching is managing time in order to encompass the needs of each student. To ensure her students get the most out of her class, she welcomes their input.
“A lot of times other teachers can get caught up in what other people think of their class, but what I ask is what my students think about the class,” Jones said. “That is the best feedback I can get because they are honest with me, and through that I am able to become better for the future.”
Jones’ love for teaching doesn’t wane during the summer months. She takes time to mentor young people in her hometown.
“I also work with a group of boys in Dunn, North Carolina, where I am from,” Jones said. “I will be working with them and teaching computer skills like spreadsheets.”
Since STEM courses are generally career oriented, Jones said she is proud to give underprivileged students the skills needed to make themselves marketable.
“I feel honored when I see my students out and they tell me how they have used what they have learned in the real world,” Jones said. “It’s almost like making your mark in history and being remembered for something. We are all looking for what our purpose is in life, and my teaching gives me that purpose.”
Brogden Middle School
Christopher Watson, who has taught for 13 years, is an eighth grade social studies teacher from Raleigh.
He says it was fate that led him to teaching middle school students.
“It was the only position available at the time, but I wouldn’t want to teach anything else now,” he said.” I love this age group.”
Though he initially went to school for broadcast journalism, he decided to become a teacher because he loves to see students make real-life connections with course material. His love for history led him to teach social studies.
To Watson, teaching is about building relationships with students. Watson finds it rewarding to see his students get excited about history and to watch them grow over the year. He often connects with his students once they are in high school to see how his courses may prepare students for classes they will take in the future.
Watson said his students keep him on his toes by updating him on the latest technology to use in the classroom. He teaches a version of his social studies course online through North Carolina Virtual Public Schools.
When he’s not teaching, Watson coaches boys’ and girls’ soccer at Brogden and advises the National Junior Honor Society.
Watson said one of the difficulties of his job is watching how outside distractions like bullying, family issues and school drama can impact student performance.
Watson earned his undergraduate degree in communication from American University and studied at Duke University and George Washington University for his masters’ degrees.
The School for Creative Studies
Jaclyn Turnwald is a ninth grade teacher at The School for Creative Studies.
She became an educator because of the impact teachers had on her personally.
“As an individual who experienced pretty serious bullying, teachers did a lot to build my confidence and move me in a direction that was positive for my life,” she said.
Turnwald chose to teach high school because she believes adolescence is a vital time for young people to have dedicated and trustworthy role models.
As an English instructor, Turnwald says she believes good communication can open doors for her students.
“Even without a formal education, if you can read, analyze and apply new information, the possibilities are endless,” Turnwald said.
She feels that testing expectations and school evaluations can make her job difficult. She said that teachers often don’t have the resources to help students realize their full potential.
“At the same time, they’re trying to insulate students from the anxiety of these external expectations and to help them focus on all the benefits and joys of learning,” she said.
Turwald grew up in Lima, Ohio, and has been teaching for 12 years – six of those years overseas.
In addition to her classroom duties, Turnwald tutors students, works with students on academic probation and advises a spoken word poetry club.
Turnwald said she loves seeing the continued success of her students by staying in touch after they graduate from her class.
“The best thank you I can offer for that support is to pay it forward,” she said.
J.D. Clement Early College High School
Marjorie Light is a ninth and 10th grade English teacher at J.D. Clement Early College High School.
She admires the perseverance she sees in her students.
“Despite everything they experience – hunger, discrimination, racism and marginalization – they are determined to make a difference in the world,” Light said. “I always tell them I have hope for our future because I know they will be leading the charge for change and equality.”
Her students described her as a part of their family, and they said she encouraged them to speak their mind and work through their problems together.
Light said her students set the tone for her classroom, making it a happy place for her to spend her day.
“One day the students covered our classroom doors with messages. One of them said, “You are my favorite teacher because I know you care about me.’ At the end of the day, it is all about the students,” Light said. “They are why I continue to teach.”
When Light arrived at J.D. Clement, the school did not have its own library. She created a lending library so students could access young adult literature. Light initially pursued a career in business because there was an excess of teachers when she was in college.
“Teaching still called to me, however, and after my children were born, I returned to college to get a Master of Science in Education,” she said. “Although the pay in North Carolina is disheartening to say the least, my career brings me much joy, and I feel as if my sacrifice of income is my way of paying it forward. Teaching is my calling.”