Exceptional Children teacher Katie O’Neal is the NCCAT Beginning Teacher of the Year. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

A first-year teacher has enough challenges getting used to a new job without the added stress of a devastating flood followed by a global pandemic.

But that’s what islander Katie O’Neal worked with after graduating in 2019 and then landing the Exceptional Children teacher job on Ocracoke.

“I got a week in with the students, and then Dorian hit and everything from then on has been crazy,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal is in her second year of teaching but was recently honored with the Beginning Teacher of the Year Award for Hyde County.

This North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) award is designed to honor and retain excellent North Carolina teachers and education leaders among the 7,000 beginning teachers recruited annually.

Leslie Cole, principal of Ocracoke School, said beginning teachers are those who are in their first three years of the profession.

And O’Neal’s first year teaching was a doozy.

After graduating in May 2019 from NC State University, she joined the Ocracoke School staff that August.

Hurricane Dorian hit on Sept. 6, 2019, and drastically changed life on Ocracoke Island. The school building was devastated, and no school was held for 22 and a half days while school officials scrambled to figure out how to hold classes.

School was eventually set up in three locations: Ocracoke Childcare for pre-K and kindergarten, the second floor of the Ocracoke School elementary building, and in the NCCAT building for high school.

Classroom space was at a premium on the second floor of the elementary building.

“Her classroom was the stairwell,” Cole said.

The area was wide enough for a desk and didn’t impede access.

“I was like, ‘Katie, this is the only place I can put you,’” Cole said. “We tucked her into a little alcove of the hallway. She went in there and made it work.”

O’Neal only had three students last year, she said, so it was OK. This year she has 11 students with whom she works one-on-one via Zoom. When in-person learning returns, she will share a classroom in the modular units set up while the new school is being built. Cole doesn’t expect the new building to open until sometime in 2022–after building starts this summer.

So, O’Neal and all of the teachers teach electronically.

“I think with all kids it’s difficult to sustain their attention online,” she said. “But I have to give it to my kids. They’ve been doing a really good job, showing up and paying attention. And I know it’s not easy for me, so it’s not easy for the kids either.”

It’s O’Neal’s generous attitude that’s one of her hallmarks.

She and art teacher, Robert Chestnut, also an Ocracoke School alumnus, were first-year teachers when Dorian devastated the island. Chestnut had to travel around to the different buildings to teach.

“They both—my heart goes out to them—they didn’t know anything differently,” Cole said. “They only had six days of ‘regular’ school, and they never questioned the changes.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic changed things again, O’Neal pivoted like everyone else.

“I can’t sing her praises enough,” Cole said. “She’s very dynamic, poised and mature.  Exceptional Children is a very diverse teaching department. There’s so much to it and she’s a quick learner.”

O’Neal got a taste of teaching at her alma mater in 2017 when as a sophomore in college, she became the first Ocracoke islander to participate as an instructor in the annual spring class about the Ocracoke brogue, a subject with which NC State professor Walt Wolfram is particularly fascinated.

Wolfram, who leads the group that comes to Ocracoke, teaches “Voices of North Carolina,” a curriculum about the various dialects throughout the state.

Regardless of whether it’s via Zoom or in person, O’Neal is following her dream of working in her hometown and at the school from which she graduated in 2015. She joins her classmate and fellow Lady Dolphin basketball teammate Lucy O’Neal, who also returned to work on the island this year as a registered nurse at the Ocracoke Health Center.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” Katie said about her work. “I’ve always loved children and working with children.”

NCCAT has been a long-time supporter of teaching excellence and a natural expression of that support is to recognize the best of the beginning teachers in our state.

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