Top state honors go to Chapel Hill High School teacher

Photo of Kimberly S. Jones, North Carolina Teacher of the Year. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Jones.


By Michelle Cassell
Managing Editor

Kimberly S. Jones, a dedicated English teacher at Chapel Hill High School for 18 years, has been named the 2023 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year. Although Jones views this achievement as a pinnacle in her career, she is not finished yet. According to Jones, she has just begun.

As State Teacher of the Year, Jones began a year-long sabbatical from teaching that will end on July 1, 2024. This September, she will start the complex process of applying for National Teacher of the Year.

Jones was named Teacher of the Year for Chapel Hill High School in the spring of 2022, then District Teacher of the Year in June 2022 and Regional Teacher of the Year in December 2022. She became the North Carolina State Teacher of the Year in April 2023.

No matter which direction these honors lead her, she said, “I’m a Tiger. I’m a Chapel Hill Tiger. First and foremost. The Chapel Hill High School English Department is my home, team, and community.” She wants her students to know they will see her at football games, homecoming, basketball games and wrestling matches as much as possible. Her ultimate call will be back to the classroom.

The State Teacher of the Year position is a full-time traveling position. She will visit schools and school boards from the sandhills to the Appalachians in metropolitan and rural areas. “I fundamentally believe that the issues we face in our state exist from the mountains to the coast. And so our solutions should be a reflection of the genius that resides in every region of our state,” said Jones. She has become part of a Regional Teacher of the Year team that travels with her. According to Jones, they travel in pursuit of their own leadership initiatives across the state.

“It is quite a unique model compared to what Teacher of the Year looks like in other states, but in North Carolina, it’s having a significant impact on teacher voice and student voice and engagement and advocacy,” Jones said.

Jones’s new position includes advocating for teachers rights and compensations. “While we are passionate, teachers are not missionaries,” she said. “We are professionals and deserve professional compensation for the hard work we bring to our students daily.” She said the amount of unpaid labor teachers do from a place of commitment to the students has ceased to be a gift. Instead it is being presented as an expectation. “And that’s not sustainable, quite simply it’s not.”

State Teacher of the Year’s schedule will place her on the road three or four days a week, making home life challenging. Her family is giving her valued support. “My husband is my biggest cheerleader and supporter. My two stepsons will be in high school – one a freshman and the other a senior. We have shared schedules and systems in place. This is where my teaching skills help a lot.”

In a press release, North Carolina State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said, “Every school needs a Ms. Jones. It’s obvious that students thrive in her classes and that she makes things happen for the better in her school. I look forward to the contributions she’ll be making across North Carolina as Teacher of the Year.”

Jones said, “One of the foundations of my classroom was student agency, equity and a culturally relevant curriculum.”  Her central goal is to meet every student where they are and to honor and validate all that they bring into the classroom. From that point, to help them grow in skill, proficiency, understanding and discussion.

“We talked about the text, we talked about research, we talked about writing. We worked collaboratively a lot. But the core of the growth for my students was grounded in authentic relationship building,” she said.

Jones’s passion for teaching began in the summer between her junior and senior year in high school when she attended the North Carolina

Governor’s School. “While I was at that six-week program, I discovered an entirely different definition of education, teaching and learning,” she said.

She began to see that educators could unlock curiosity and help you discover your place in the world and your voice. “I wanted to help students unlock their powers of curiosity and voice. To help them discover more about themselves and make the world a better place,” she said.

Jones chose to teach high school English at age 23 and has stayed with that grade level for 18 years. “I wanted to meet kids on the cusp of adulthood and help them start to think about who they wanted to be as young adults.”

Charles Blanchard, retired principal of Chapel Hill High said in a letter of recommendation for Jones, “Her vision has helped our entire school effectively reach students of all ability levels and provided more equity- centered classrooms for our students.” Blanchard continued, “Her leadership has also opened doors for our students of color, resulting in an increase of those students enrolling in honors and Advanced Placement courses.”

Jones says she knew that every student who came into her class was not going to be an English major or a journalist and they might not be reading every day outside of her class. “I told them I’m going to have an English party every day. You are invited every day.” She explained that she made students realize that no matter what they decide to do in life, they must communicate with others. They needed to be able to read and understand to excel in whatever they wanted to do.

COVID-19 took its toll on Jones, her fellow teachers and the students. When they returned to the classroom there was a tough adjustment from the isolation.

“I needed to show them that our continued sustainability as humanity is going to be reliant on community and interdependence. To see that their voice, input and contributions matter,” Jones said. A positive result she sees from the ordeal of the pandemic is the evolved understanding of education and public health. “I think I was fundamentally changed and so were the schools. I remember coming home in January of that first year back and telling my husband, ‘We’re going to be ok.’ It felt like school again.”

Jones’s message to first-year teachers: “ We have all been where you are. You can do this. Rely on your mentors, your staff and your colleagues. If you enter your classroom with a dedication to the children and their success, you will be okay.”

She tells new teachers there is no greater feeling than watching someone else grow, excel and experience success academically or interpersonally and knowing that you were part of it. “That’s what will bring you back to work the next day. Realizing you are part of helping these children build a successful life and that you will be part of that child’s story of school forever.”

Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.

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