KANNAPOLIS — Until last year, Rebecca Merriman always knew she wanted to be a teacher.
The daughter of a teacher herself, Merriman grew up playing school with dolls, giving them lessons while walking in high-heeled shoes like her teachers did.
But after six years of the real thing in a large school system, she said, Merriman wanted out. She said she no longer felt free to teach her students in the ways that were best for them.
Instead of finding a new career field, Merriman came to Jackson Park Elementary School in August 2012 as a kindergarten teacher. She said she found new inspiration and encouragement there.
Merriman spread that inspiration to others, and on Friday she was named Kannapolis City Schools’ 2013 Teacher of the Year.
“I cannot thank you all enough for this tremendous, tremendous honor,” Merriman said. “This is the best district anybody could ever hope to work for, and it has truly rekindled my desire to want to teach and to stay in the education profession. I will do my very best to make sure that the children and staff are ‘all in’ in Kannapolis and that everybody can continue to have a shining moment.”
The decision was announced Friday morning during the school system’s annual Teacher of the Year breakfast at the North Carolina Research Campus.
Merriman’s peers selected her as their Teacher of the Year after just one year at Jackson Park Elementary. A selection committee, which is made up of of teachers, school system administrators and community members, reviewed essays and conducted interviews to select the system-wide winner.
Principal Nick Carlascio said Merriman is a “phenomenal teacher” who is professional with parents and enthusiastic with students.
“She is the best kindergarten teacher I have ever seen,” he said. “I can say that because I taught kindergarten for four years.”
He said her most important trait probably is her courage. She welcomes and even asks for “the difficult child” in her classroom.
“She just embraces the whole child,” Carlascio said. “No matter what issues they have at home or with learning, she just embraces them and really impassions them to do their best in the classroom.”
Her enthusiasm and passion were on display after the announcement Friday. She threw her arms in the air with excitement before wrapping them around her colleagues in teary-eyed bear hugs.
“I left Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with the desire to teach not in my heart,” Merriman said. “I had actually started looking at other career paths, because I no longer wanted to teach.”
But she couldn’t find a job opening that seemed to fit her.
When she saw the opening for a teacher at Jackson Park Elementary School, she sent an email to the principal, figuring it might not be time to give up on teaching just yet.
Within 15 minutes, he sent a reply asking her to come out to the school that afternoon.
“From the minute I walked in the door, I had a sense of, ‘I’m home,’” Merriman said, her voice wavering.
In his first year as principal of Jackson Park last year, Carlascio said he was faced with a teacher’s August resignation. Merriman’s email came at just the right time, and her resume looked good.
She impressed Carlascio in the interview and continues to impress in the classroom, he said.
Merriman said the support of the school’s administration have brought back the feelings that she is worthy of being a teacher and that what she is doing is important.
“When you have an administrative staff boosting you up, you feel like you can conquer the world,” Merriman said.
Merriman received $1,000 from SunTrust Bank. She will now be considered for regional Teacher of the Year honors.
Kathleen Woerner of Kannapolis Intermediate School was named the system’s runner-up Teacher of the Year and received $500 from SunTrust Bank.
The remaining nominees received $100 from SunTrust:
• Larry Efird, A. L. Brown High School
• Trisha Hill, Fred L. Wilson Elementary School
• Danah Hughes, Kannapolis Middle School
• Molly Smith, Forest Park Elementary School
• Melissa Stanley, Woodrow Wilson Elementary School
• Margie Zimmerman, Shady Brook Elementary School
The previous Teacher of the Year, Sandy Summerlin, also spoke at the breakfast Friday.
She talked about many of her experiences over the past year representing teachers at Kannapolis City Schools. One of them was a trip to India with a group of teachers who were concerned about the “dismantling of education” in North Carolina.
As they visited different schools, Summerlin said, they saw that students and teachers in certain communities had very little. They may not have had computers, textbooks or even shoes, but they were excited to be in school.
She said all children deserve the same opportunity to learn no matter what they have or where they’re from.
“I will continue to try every day to live up to your expectations in my classroom,” Summerlin said, “and give my best to the students I have the pleasure to teach.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.