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Middle school educator wins NC Teacher of the Year

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A Haywood County math teacher is North Carolina’s newest Burroughs Wellcome Teacher of the Year.

Heather Smith, who teaches at Waynesville Middle School, will spend the next year traveling the state to promote the teaching profession.

Smith, 30, is the first state teacher of the year in 30 years to come from the western education region of the state. North Carolina is divided into eight regions for state administrative support.

“I’m so thankful now that people know North Carolina does not end after you reach Asheville,” she said.

Smith emphasizes the real-world applications of math, the different ways students can correctly solve the same problem, and relating with students so they know they’re understood and valued. She likes to attend students’ extracurricular events and says her students’ potential inspires her everyday.

“Everyone is a math student,” she said. “Everyone can be taught.”

And for practical advice, she tells her algebra students they’ll always have to solve for “x’ someday, like when they think about budgeting for their household and they don’t know every dollar going in or out yet.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said Smith “structures lessons to empower students to think critically, collaborate and take ownership of their learning.” Like the other teacher of the year finalists, Truitt said Smith believes in making learning relevant to the students and fosters a classroom environment where students feel valued.

In a news release announcing Smith’s honor, Haywood County Schools Superintendent Trevor Putnam said Smith’s competitive nature drives her and praised her teaching skills and expertise. He said she has “charisma, humility and [a] caring heart.”

Smith credited her faith, other educators, her students and her husband — also a Waynesville Middle School teacher — for helping her succeed.

Smith teaches math at Waynesville Middle School in Haywood County. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
Smith teaches math at Waynesville Middle School in Haywood County. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

As she travels the state next year, Smith said she’s looking forward to “uplifting” what students and teachers are already doing across the state and what people are already doing to make education great.

She said that’s also key to getting more people interested in teaching as a profession, as the state is wrestling with teacher turnover rates that are the highest in decades.

“We change lives, we care about students, we are impactful to students, we are an open door to allow students to grow and to be successful,” Smith said. “So they need to be a teacher because they can be a part of the future of North Carolina.”

Smith is certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and is a gradate of Western Carolina University. She’s taught at Waynesville Middle since 2019 before that also taught in schools in Canton and Clyde, also In Haywood County.

Smith was one of nine finalists for the award, with the other finalists coming from the state’s seven other education regions and among charter schools. The other finalists were:

  • Anita Rubino-Thomas, Currituck County High School in Currituck County Schools
  • Nardi Routten, Creekside Elementary School in Craven County Schools
  • Rachel Brackney, SouthWest Edgecombe High School in Edgecombe County Public Schools
  • Jennifer Blake, Carthage Elementary School in Moore County Schools
  • Will Marrs, Davie County High School in Davie County Schools
  • Sarah Lefebvre, Health Sciences Academy at Monroe Middle School in Union County Public Schools
  • Erik Mortensen, Watauga High School in Watauga County Schools
  • Lee Haywood, Uwharrie Charter Academy



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