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By Richard Taylor
Jeanie Owens, Ocracoke’s fifth-grade teacher, was named Burroughs Wellcome Fund Northeast Regional 2020 Teacher of the Year by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction on Wednesday. Nineteen school districts in 17 counties comprise the region.
At a surprise ceremony in her classroom Wednesday morning, 2019 state Teacher of the Year Mariah Morris announced the good news to Owens. Hyde County School Superintendent Steve Basnight, Ocracoke Principal Leslie Cole, Student Support Services Administrator Nancy Leach, other teachers and the third and fourth grade students also attended.
Basnight gave Owens a large bouquet of flowers and a big hug after Morris presented the award to Owens, who also is the 2019 Ocracoke and Hyde County Teacher of the Year.
Owens was surprised by it all.
“I thought it was over,” she said Thursday. “I thought the other candidate won.”
After having been named Hyde County Teacher of the year, Owens had to create a portfolio for the regional interview, which lasted 30-minutes and for which she had to answer 10 questions.
About 16 teachers interviewed for the top regional award, from which two finalists were chosen.
Judges visited Ocracoke School on Nov. 4 to watch Owens teach and to talk with students, parents, other teachers, and administrators.
“The award is more about this school and faculty than me; it’s more about the students than me,” Owens continued. “Ocracoke School is top notch and has an extraordinary atmosphere. We all strive to do our best and to teach the students in the best way possible.
“Every day I step into the classroom, it’s for the kids,” she said. “It’s to create an environment where the kids are growing, loving learning and becoming better people, better citizens.”
As a teacher, Owens leaves her ego at the door “because I’m as much a learner as the students.”
“I think our students are incredibly curious, wonderful and awesome. Ocracoke kids get into your soul, and they don’t leave. They just kinda stay here in your heart,” she chuckled.
At Ocracoke School, Owens said she found her dream job.
“This honor just means I’m where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “I’d like to stay at Ocracoke forever.”
“She’s a fabulous teacher,” Cole noted. “The fact that she’s the teacher of the year for the region is most well deserved. We’re very proud of her and we’re thrilled to have her on staff.”
Basnight was equally elated over Owens’ selection. “It just goes to show that we have incredible teachers in Hyde County and Ocracoke School,” he said. “We’re very proud of Miss Jeanie and we’re going to support her in any way we can.”
Basnight said Ocracoke has some the best educators in the state, and the size of the island has nothing to do with the level of education Hyde provides to the students.
“The fact that’s she’s being recognized as one of the nine best teachers in the state of North Carolina is extremely fitting,” he added. “It’s about the people who are involved with kids, and Miss Jeanie is living proof that it’s all about the kids. I think she’s as good as it gets.”
Basnight was impressed how Owens (and other teachers) took third, fourth and fifth grade students for a week at Astro Camp in Clover, Virginia, in September, just to get them off the island while school was out after Hurricane Dorian hit Sept. 6.
“That’s above and beyond what’s required,” he said. “She saw how important it was to those kids to make that happen, so she did.”
Astro Camp was sponsored in part by the 21st Century School Fund. Elementary teachers Martha Taylor, Karen Teklinsky and Hyde Instructional Technology Coach Lynn King-Bowen also attended the camp.
“She’s not basing those decisions on what’s best for Jeanie, she’s basing them on what’s best for those kids,” Basnight continued. “That’s exactly what I want happening in Hyde County Schools. When we reach that level across the board, we’re there.”
About these honors, Owens said her only goal was getting the Ocracoke School Teacher of the Year parking space.
“Because I run in the mornings and I’m always coming to school not too late, just right on time,” she said. “I wanted that Teacher of the Year parking spot because when school was normal, it was hard to find a parking place (on Back Road).
“When I was named Teacher of the Year for the school, I thought ‘Oh yes, I get a parking spot out back.’ I only got to park in it once, and then the hurricane hit. It was that parking spot that got me going.”
The North Carolina Teacher of the Year Program promotes the teaching profession through advocacy and support, while recognizing outstanding teaching professionals who implement best practices in classrooms across the state.
Teacher-of-the-year candidates must demonstrate outstanding leadership; instill in students a desire to learn and achieve; understand the individual needs of students; encourage students’ talents and foster their self-esteem; demonstrate a thorough knowledge of subject matter; have the ability to share that knowledge effectively with students and foster cooperative relationships with colleagues and community.
North Carolina has recognized outstanding Teachers of the Year since 1970. Basnight and Cole both feel Owens has a good chance of becoming the state’s 2020 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year in April.
For the next three months, Owens must rework her portfolio packet, go through several more rounds of interviews and attend — with the other regional finalists — selected public events across the state, until the Burroughs Wellcome judges announce the final selection.
If selected as the 2020 Teacher of the Year, Owens would take a leave from Ocracoke and spend the next school year traveling the state as a teaching profession ambassador for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. She would receive a stipend for travel and the use of a car.
Owens has taught at Ocracoke since 2015. She leads the Ocracoke School Improvement Team (SIT) and has organized the school’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) fair for the last three years. She is also a member of Hyde’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) team.
Owens was certified this year as Ocracoke’s Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) student coordinator. In August she graduated from Appalachian State’s educational leadership program, a program she credits with making her a stronger teacher and a more knowledgeable advocate for students’ educational and social-emotional needs.
Owens has also organized an elementary spelling bee, and for the last two years ran a Battle of the Books competition, which Ocracoke won over Mattamuskeet Elementary last spring.
Owens raises funds for fourth and fifth grade field trips to historical and cultural locations in the state. “I take the kids on a week-long field trip in the spring,” she said. “Of course, that’s up in the air this year because of Dorian.”
Owens, 49, was born into an Air Force family in North Dakota. She grew up in Abingdon, Virginia. She received her bachelor’s degree in history and German with a French minor from Radford University, Radford, Virginia, in 1992. She received her masters’ degree in Curriculum and Instruction with K-8 certification from Virginia Tech in 1998.
She previously taught high school German and ESL, middle school civics, sixth grade math and several elementary grades. She even started a language school in Blacksburg.
In 2018, she published “Images of America…Ocracoke” which is one in the multiple series Images of America produced by Arcadia Publishing. Outside of school, she serves as an officer of the board of directors for the Ocracoke Preservation Society.
Owens has two children. Eli, 22, works as an accountant in Winston-Salem. Annelise, 25, just received her master’s degree at American University where she works as a project coordinator in the School of International Studies.
“I am just honored to be named Northeast Regional Teacher of the Year,” Owens said. “Now, I have to do more research, add to my portfolio and mentally prepare for the state interviews.”