The students in Karyn Dickerson’s 10th grade English Inclusion class at Grimsley Senior High School are restless. It’s the end of the school year and Dickerson is reviewing how to write a particular kind of essay, called a “constructed response,” for the upcoming end-of-course tests.
To keep students engaged, Dickerson, who is the recently anointed North Carolina Teacher of the Year, tosses a ball as she calls on her students.
“Who can tell me what the first part of a constructed response is,” says Dickerson as she lobs a ball at one student who is clearly preoccupied with other matters in the back of the room.
“A thesis?” questions the boy, a little unsure.
“Yes, a thesis! Please sit down.” Dickerson then carefully explains the components of a thesis paragraph, all the while considering her next ball recipient.
Dickerson deftly calls out students who are distracted, calmly but firmly bringing them back to the focus of the lesson. It’s a task she has to do dozens of times throughout the class period, which showcases her sublime classroom management skills. Throughout the class, Dickerson’s teaching flow is never thrown off and she rarely shows any signs of becoming rattled.
Students respond well to her style of communication, which can be best described as someone who offers constant and careful doses of discipline, empathy, and love for her students and her craft.
The path toward teacher of the year
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Importance of Being Earnest. Antigone. Posters of these classics adorn the walls of Dickerson’s classroom at Grimsley Senior High School, where she has taught English for the past seven years.
For Dickerson, teaching was not always a part of her master plan. “I went to college initially planning on being an environmental lawyer,” she said. Her initial idea quickly morphed into designs on becoming an English college professor when she realized how much she enjoyed reading and editing friends’ papers. After finishing her undergraduate degree in English at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Dickerson went on to get her master’s degree in English at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where she was a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar.
“I couldn’t start directly into a doctoral program due to timing,” Dickerson explained, hoping that she could move right along the professorial career path once she returned to the United States. “I didn’t know what to do, until a former assistant principal offered me a position at a Rockingham County middle school as a reading remediation teacher.”
“As soon as I stepped in front of the classroom, I just fell in love with it,” Dickerson said.
Realizing teaching was her calling, Dickerson entered the profession through the lateral entry program . Through this route, those who already have a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject area are able to teach right away while obtaining their professional educator’s license. Approximately 10 percent of all new teachers in North Carolina during the 2012-13 school year entered the profession through the lateral entry program, according to Lynda Fuller, public information officer for the NC Department of Public Instruction.
Dickerson obtained her licensure, is nationally board certified and has her master’s degree. All teachers in North Carolina receive salary supplements in addition to their base pay for advanced degrees and board certification. Salary supplements for master’s degrees are in jeopardy of disappearing , however, depending on the upcoming actions of the general assembly.
Seven years after entering the teaching profession, Dickerson found herself on the path toward teacher of the year. The 50 year-old National Teacher of the Year program involves a rigorous and lengthy competition that involves a year-long process beginning at the school level. Peers nominate a group of teachers for the school’s teacher of the year, and the winner of that competition then completes a 14-page portfolio that details his or her resume, teaching philosophy, current education issues and trends, and what his or her platform would be as North Carolina Teacher of the Year for the district-level competition.
Teachers who go on to win teacher of the year at the district and regional levels then advance to the state teacher of the year competition. Finalists travel to Raleigh to present their portfolios and discuss their views on topics that include professional development, technology, current legislation affecting education policy and what the ideal classroom would look like. Winners of the state-level competition sit on the State Board of Education for two years and travel around the state to support and promote the teaching profession. They also compete for the chance to serve as the national teacher of the year.
Upon winning NC Teacher of the Year, NC State Superintendent June Atkinson commended Dickerson for her educational philosophy. “She encourages her students to think for themselves and provides them with numerous opportunities for open discussion and cooperative learning. These are valuable skills that will serve them well in further education and in their careers,” said Atkinson.
Facing challenges in the classroom
At Grimsley, Dickerson teaches two levels of 10th grade English. Her International Baccalaureate class comprises students who are destined for competitive, four-year colleges. Her English Inclusion class is made up of students who all have special education needs, and many have state-mandated Individual Education Plans, or IEPs.
Located in Greensboro, Grimsley Senior High School has consistently ranked in the top 300 high schools in the United States, according to The Washington Post, and is known for its International Baccalaureate program. The high school has a graduation rate of 84 percent and three-quarters of its graduates go on to four-year, degree-granting institutions of higher education.
“While some of the challenges they face are quite different,” Dickerson says about the students in her two classes, “some are actually the same.” Access to technology is just one of those challenges.
“I love 21st century skills and I really try to assign out of class assignments that require students to share and present material in creative and innovative ways, but it’s quite difficult for students who don’t have computers–and that’s true for my IB students and my inclusion students,” said Dickerson.
Students who don’t have access to technology at home don’t have the ability to play catch-up at school, either. Grimsley only has two full time computer labs, or 50 computers for 1,800 students. Most of the time those labs are booked for testing. There’s one other lab for vocational education students, which is used primarily for students signed up for virtual public school classes, and there’s the media center, which is usually booked for individual classes.
Wireless internet is available to students who do have laptops or other smart devices, and Dickerson encourages her students to share their resources with other students who lack those means in order to level the playing field as much as she can. In fact, many days Dickerson would like to use a computer lab for her technology-based lessons, but the proliferation of computer-based tests has made that impossible. Instead, she relies on students to huddle together around laptops or smartphones that some of the students can bring from home in order to teach her lesson.
Dickerson says the technology gap is probably her biggest challenge now, especially with the new Common Core State Standards Initiative . North Carolina has joined 46 other states in joining Common Core, which requires teachers to follow nationally developed learning standards that heavily emphasize the use of technology in and out of the classroom.
The lack of funding for textbooks continues to present challenges. “My first year at Grimsley, seven years ago, was the last year we got new textbooks for English,” said Dickerson. “I haven’t even opened that textbook once this year, because it’s out of date and it won’t really connect with Common Core.”
In 2010, the statewide textbook budget dropped  from the previous year’s $116 million to just $2.6 million. There’s been a slight increase since then, but not nearly enough for new textbooks. And budget proposals for 2013-15 would cut instructional supplies, including textbooks, even further.
Dickerson explains that some measures have been taken to provide instructional supplies, such as giving teachers preparatory materials for AP exams that they can use for lessons, but “they’re meant to be consumables, and often students forget and write in them or rip pages out,” she said.
It’s also easy to find a lot of resources online associated with Common Core lesson planning and instruction, but if the school doesn’t have the budget for printing and copying, it’s very challenging to bring those lessons to the classroom.
Coping with low teacher morale
“I do think teacher morale is very low,” Dickerson explained. “In the past week, we have received three emails from teachers who announced they are leaving.” One of those three is a new English teacher who is leaving to go to graduate school, in the hopes of increasing his teaching salary.
“As long as they don’t cut master’s pay,” Dickerson mused, “which is now on the table.”
Teachers have not received raises in North Carolina for more than 5 years, with the exception of a small raise last year of 1 percent. The state ranks 46th in the nation in teacher pay, and there are no plans in current budget proposals for 2013-15 to bring North Carolina back up to its former position of 25th, where it stood back in the mid 2000s. North Carolina teachers make about $10,000 less than the national average.
Former teacher of the year Darcy Grimes told the State Board of Education members earlier this year that of the 9 regional teachers of the year she works with, five are considering leaving the profession for better paying jobs.
“Teachers now, on average, make $4,000-5,000 less than what they made in 2009,” said Dickerson. “When you compare that with the increased costs in health care, especially for my colleagues with young children, it’s very daunting.”
Dickerson lives in a two-teacher household, having recently married Grimsley Spanish teacher Jade Dickerson. The two share a profound passion for teaching, devoting much of their weekends and evenings to school activities, tutoring, lesson planning and grading. But Dickerson will tell you this is the workload of any teacher who cares for their students’ success.
Some days the alarm clock goes off at 4am so that Dickerson can get to work grading papers. At school no later than 8am, she also offers one-hour tutoring sessions before and after school for no additional compensation. The day ends no earlier than 5pm, although often she doesn’t leave until 6 or 7 thanks to various school activities she’s expected to attend.
Once home, she usually grades before bed, along with her husband. On Sundays, the two head to a local coffee shop to grade for 2-3 hours before church, then spend an additional 2-4 hours Sunday afternoon devising lesson plans.
Dickerson figures she works, on average, around 60-65 hours each week. The average teacher’s salary in North Carolina is $45,933.
There is a popular perception that teachers have the summers off, which are about two months long. But for many teachers, that’s not the case; teachers often attend several professional development trainings throughout the summer for no additional compensation. Dickerson attended Common Core trainings throughout the summer last year, while her husband spent his time writing new curricula for the state.
Dickerson’s vision for public education
“I think the state of public education is a lot better than people give it credit for,” said Dickerson. “When you see how much time and effort educators put into what goes on in their classroom, I know that the teachers in North Carolina really care about their students.”
“I do think there needs to be accountability,” when asked about the recent trend toward high stakes testing, “but we need to broaden the way we assess what our students know, and that also includes broadening the way we assess teacher effectiveness in the classroom.”
Dickerson says she’d like to see more in the way of student portfolios in terms of assessment. She would also like to see students assessed for their growth, rather than their performance on a standardized test. “Our students are really feeling the pressure and stress of long periods of testing.”
Last week, the North Carolina House approved a budget that includes $50 million in school vouchers  for students to use at private schools. The money would come from the public school budget. Lawmakers say that the program is necessary for students and families who want a choice when it comes to education.
“We know that we are 48th in the nation in per pupil funding, so I don’t understand why we continue to siphon money away from the public schools. It doesn’t seem like the best way to use our money,” Dickerson said, in response to school vouchers. “Guilford County offers several different magnet programs. So this way, money is still coming into the public schools, but to programs that may work for students who don’t do well in traditional school settings. If we view that as an alternative instead of private schools, then ultimately we will reach more students.”
In the end, Dickerson believes that a successful model for public education should build upon the needs and skills of each individual student. “It’s very hard to have just one exam show mastery or successful growth of a student, especially when students are starting at such different places.”
“We have to view each student as an individual. That’s the only way to ensure student success.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected] 
*This story was changed to reflect the fact that the Common Core State Standards Initiative requires teachers to follow nationally developed learning standards, not curriculum guidelines, which heavily emphasize the use of technology in and outside of the classroom.