By Scott Bigelow
Award winning teachers honored - From left: Felicia Hunt, Robeson County Teacher of the Year, Brian Freeman, NEA National Teaching Excellence Award, Kay Thompson, Brunswick County Teacher of the Year and Jamie Brown, Moore County Teacher of the Year. All are UNCP graduates.
The stars came out March 16 at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Four outstanding teachers from the region - all UNCP graduates - were honored with a "Salute to Teaching Excellence."
Three of the alumni educators recently earned county, regional and/or state distinctions. The University presented them with engraved golden apples to honor their achievements in the teaching profession.
- Jamie Darian Brown, a 1998 UNCP graduate, is the North Moore High School and Moore County Teacher of the Year. Brown, a Teaching Fellow, is a language arts and writing teacher.
- Felicia Hunt, a 1988 graduate, is the Teacher of the Year for Purnell Swett High School and Robeson County. Hunt has been a marketing teacher at Purnell Swett High School since 1995.
- Kay Thompson, a 1989 graduate, is the Brunswick County Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Regional Teacher of the Year. Thompson teaches fifth grade at Waccamaw Elementary School.
Guest of honor was Tommy O'Briant (Brian) Freeman, winner of the National Education Association's (NEA) 2003 National Teaching Excellence Award. A 1992 UNCP graduate, Freeman teaches second grade at Peterson Elementary School in Red Springs.
Freeman received a "Star Polisher" Award from UNCP to honor his work in preparing young students for the challenges ahead.
Chancellor Allen C. Meadors welcomed the guests of honor.
"We're proud of our School of Education, and tonight you see why," Chancellor Meadors said. "We're extremely proud of Brian, he's one in 2.7 million."
"We believe UNCP offers teacher candidates the best preparation in the state of North Carolina," Dr. Meadors said. "Our teachers are more successful in the classroom as these four great teachers clearly demonstrate."
Freeman competed for the NEA award with 2.7 million other teachers, who belong to the nation's largest teacher association. He is the first UNCP graduate to win the award.
"I am the first male elementary school teacher to win the NEA's top award and the first teacher from a rural area to win it," he said. "I believe it is not the wealth of the school system that makes a difference. What makes the difference in the classroom is a teacher who cares about children."
A NEA produced video about Freeman, gave lively testimony to a dedicated and extraordinarily creative teacher. In various colorful costumes, Freeman was shown teaching and entertaining a classroom of attentive students. As one of his students said, "He is the boss with the hot sauce."
Freeman cares about his students, said Peterson Elementary Principal Penney Gibson. "He didn't miss any of the baseball games of his students last year."
"Education should be fun and magical," Freeman said. "Too often education is an obstacle to success for children."
It's not all fun, Freeman said in a serious moment. "In the classroom, I am the boss."
The NEA National Teaching Excellence Award is one of many awards Freeman has won. Twice he was named one of USA Today's Top 40 Teachers of the Year. He was named national Second Grade Teacher of the Year. He also won North Carolina NEA's top teaching award, the Terry Sanford Award for Creativity in Teaching and Administration.
Freeman, a National Board Certified teacher, earned a master's degree in education from UNCP. He also is an elected member of the Red Springs City Council.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Dr. Diane Jones remembered Freeman as an energetic student leader as an undergraduate.
"With Brian as president of the Student Government Association, it was a fun year," Dr. Jones said. "You saw Brian everywhere on campus. He was very involved in campus activities."
Freeman shared some of his memories of UNCP.
"One of the reasons that UNCP is so successful is the commitment and dedication of its professors and administrators," Freeman said. "I want to be just that dedicated and committed to education."
He singled out School of Education professors, Dr. Sharon Sharpe and Dr. Swanee Dixon, who were in the audience, as outstanding role models.
UNCP's Salute to Teaching Excellence was created to award individuals who have been shining stars in a very challenging profession, said Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Dr. Roger Brown.
"As a former classroom teacher myself, I honor those who do the most critical work in our society," Dr. Brown said.
On behalf of the School of Education, Dean Warren Baker said, "It gives us all a good feeling to know that all over the region we have graduates who are reaping awards like this."
UNCP's Offices of Alumni Relations and Donor Relations in the Office of Advancement sponsored the Salute to Teaching Excellence.
Teresa Oxendine, Director of Donor Relations, said Freeman used part of his award money to create a scholarship at UNCP.
"He said he wanted to do something to give back to this University," Oxendine said. "So, he established the Brian Freeman Endowed Scholarship for Teaching Excellence."