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Beginning Teacher of the Year Makenna Pate found her starting place close to home

CHINA GROVE — Makenna Pate grew up in Rowan County, went to Catawba College and is now teaching at her old middle school.

The China Grove Middle School English teacher began her career in 2019, and in the same school year would see the historic closure of all public schools in the state as the country grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the year wasn’t all bad. Pate was named Beginning Teacher of the Year for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, a distinction reserved for educators who are in the first few years of their careers separate from the district’s “Teacher of the Year” top honor.

“I’m so glad this is the path that I chose,” Pate said.

During her senior year at Catawba, she was coaching China Grove Middle’s cheerleading team and found she loved spending time with the kids.

She decided she was not happy with her original plan to get into counseling and gravitated toward being a teacher. She knew she wanted to spend time with kids and that it would be a perfect opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students. It gave her a sense of purpose. For Pate, it is more than teaching kids language arts; it is a chance to lead them in the right direction.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” She said.

She started teaching as a lateral entry, now called residency licensure. She took the exam for middle school English language arts, passed it and is working toward her teaching license through Catawba.

She realized she wanted to be a teacher before her last semester. She took some classes and found some internships to help prepare her.

She enjoys working with middle school age kids and thinks they are misunderstood.

“I feel so strongly about those kids knowing that they have someone who’s advocating for them and cheering them on,” Pate said.

Pate said other people tell her there is no way they could be a middle school teacher. Things are challenging and changing constantly for kids in middle school as they try to figure themselves out.

“Since I have been around middle schoolers, I’ve learned that they’re just awesome humans,” Pate said, adding they care about their teachers, are fun and need extra love and attention.

Pate looks back on her own time in middle school as the most difficult time of her school years, but she had teachers who encouraged her during that time and she wants to do the same for her students.

Today, Pate’s students are young enough that they still need guidance on how to react to different situations. Part of the challenge, Pate said, is making students care about learning and want to work hard in school.

Pate says she stops in the hallway to dance with kids, try to understand their jokes and learn dances and songs that are popular to connect with her students. Pate’s students call her “cringey” and “extra,” but she enjoys that part of her job is laughing with the students and trying to fit into their world. She said students need to know how much you care.

“A lot of times in middle school, you’re trying to be cool, you’re trying to fit in, you want people to like you,” Pate said. “But now that I’m an adult, I care less about what people think, and I think that gives me the opportunity to fit in and reach those kids who maybe don’t fit in to the crowd.”

Pate says she always wants her students to feel like they have a voice. They may not agree, but she always wants to give them the opportunity. An example is working with students on what they think is reasonable with the district’s blended model adopted due to COVID-19.

“That doesn’t mean I always listen and do what they say, but at least to hear what it’s like from them, what the experience is like and what the challenges are, what they like about it,” Pate said. “And then just to think about how I can adjust.”

China Grove Middle Principal Rikki Baldwin, who was hired this summer, says she was surprised that Pate was a new teacher because of her energy and the culture of her classroom.

Pate originally decided to go to Catawba because it made sense financially. She was able to commute, but she felt she received a good education and enjoyed the small class sizes.

“It was very much like a family,” Pate said. “Your professors knew who you were, they knew your name and my professors really cared about my life outside of school.”

There were some times she wanted to get away from home and wished she lived on campus or went somewhere not so close to home. Looking back now, Pate says she thinks it was the right decision and set her up perfectly for her job. 

She cheered at China Grove Middle when she attended and played volleyball in high school. She cheered for one year at Catawba and then joined the dance team. She found out the school needed a cheerleading coach from the school’s athletic director, Lisa Faggart, who she knew from attending school there.

She has stayed close to home too. Spending time with her family, friends, dog and staying involved at her church are important to her.

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