Educators look to make a difference outside the classroom

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
From left

DURHAM — It is back-to-school season, but it will be the first time in a long time Bobbie Cavnar won’t be teaching.Cavnar, an English teacher at South Point High School in Belmont, N.C., will be touring the state as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year. That means not being in the classroom in 2016-17 — at least not his own.”Right now, all of my co-workers are getting their classrooms ready, and it feels weird. … This is the first time in my adult life that I’ve not had a classroom, so it’s very strange,” he said.For 17 years, the 39-year-old Cavnar has been preparing for the next wave of students every August, teaching right out of college since age 21. He spent four years in Florida before coming to Gaston County.Cavnar, Principal of the Year Melody Chalmers and Superintendent of the Year Freddie Williamson were in the Triangle Thursday to speak to the North Carolina Chamber on the keys to success for local schools.”My main job is actually traveling around the state as both an ambassador for teachers, as their teacher voice, but also just listening to teachers and finding out what are they concerned about,” Cavnar said.That means advocating for teachers while also talking to them about what’s happening in their classrooms while he’s not in his.”It’s very important, from my perspective, to be a voice for teachers at the legislative level and at the school board level,” Cavnar said.Cavnar said he chose to start a family in North Carolina after teaching at a Florida high school with more than 5,000 students, an experience he said was impersonal.The community atmosphere he sought and found at South Point High is a big reason Cavnar can spend a year traveling around the state despite a busy home life. Cavnar and his wife, Jenny, have 4- and 6-year-old daughters, and Jenny works full time for an accounting firm in Charlotte.Cavnar will rely on his fellow teachers to pick up the slack at South Point High, while some familiar faces have offered help at home since the Cavnars have no family in the area.”Luckily, we have a team of babysitters because I know lots of kids from teaching high school for so long,” he said, laughing.For Chalmers, a principal for six years at E.E. Smith High School in Fayetteville, the honor includes speaking engagements. But unlike Cavnar, Chalmers also maintains duties at her school.”I’ve just got to balance time. I really rely on my teacher leadership,” Chalmers said. “My teachers are really supportive of what I’m going to be doing this year.”That included discovering this week she needed to hire a new social studies teacher, one of three positions she still has to fill. Chalmers said finding teachers has become difficult.”Our school is actually beside Fayetteville State University, so a lot of times whenever I have a vacancy the first person I call is the university,” Chalmers said. “And they’re saying, ‘No, we don’t have anybody in the pipeline.'”Still, Chalmers and E.E. Smith High have thrived by striking up relationships with local businesses and the military base at Fort Bragg to help students get a glimpse of life after high school.”We really are about making them college- and career-ready,” Chalmers said.For those who do go to college, Chalmers said more of her students — many who come from poor families — are opting for cheaper options if they decide to pursue a higher education.”Some of my top students who probably five, six years ago would have been going to Carolina, NC State, Duke, they’re saying, ‘No, no, no. I’m going to Fayetteville Tech first, and then I’ll transfer later so I don’t have that same cost,'” Chalmers said.”It’s definitely a shift,” she said. “But the bottom line is we just want kids to be prepared for the next level, whatever it is.”