JEFFERSON-It’s not everyday you get to meet the President of the United States, but Ashe County High School’s Keana Triplett got just such an opportunity earlier this month.
“It was like something out a fairy tale, just surreal,” Triplett said. “President Obama was so nice, human and real. He really seemed appreciative of the job teachers do day in and day out.”
North Carolina’s 2015-2016 Teacher of the Year, Triplett was joined by teachers-of-the-year from the country’s other 49 states in being afforded the honor.
“This entire experience over the past year has been such a blessing,” Triplett said. “And meeting the president and Vice President Biden is just one of many great opportunities I’ve been offered.”
An ACHS English teacher, Triplett was named Ashe County Schools’ Teacher of the Year for the 2014-2015 school year. That honor placed her in elite company alongside representatives from the state’s more than 100 school districts.
And last April, Triplett was named North Carolina’s 2015-2016 Teacher of the Year. Triplett has spent her entire career to date with Ashe County Schools. She was hired by the district in 2005 after earning a bachelor’s degree in English Education from Appalachian State University, and later earned a master’s degree in instructional technology.
She’s spent the last year acting as a kind of traveling ambassador for North Carolina’s public education system across the state – and in the case of meeting Mr. Obama – around the country.
She’s spent time in public schools across the state, which she said has given her the opportunity to witness firsthand the state’s most innovative educators at work with their students.
“It’s also allowed me so much in the way of professional development but it’s also been gratifying, too,” Triplett said. “I’ve got to watch how beginning teachers approach their work and I’ve talked to pre-service teachers at universities across the state. I’ve also had the chance to speak with high school seniors about becoming a teacher.”
The opportunity has allowed Triplett to piece together the big picture view of North Carolina’s education system. That vantage point has also allowed Triplett an inside look at where the system sometimes comes up short.
“There simply isn’t enough interest in the teaching field among high school seniors and we really are on the verge of a teacher shortage,” Triplett said.
Triplett singled out the relatively low salary paid to the state’s educators and the stress that comes with what she called “the ever increasing workload.”
“Kids know right off the bat that after they finish their degree that their students loan payments are going to be incredible,” Triplett said. “And they have an understanding of the stress that many times comes with the job, so many seniors simply aren’t looking at teaching as a profession at all.”
The way to remedy the situation? Triplett said the narrative surrounding the profession needs to be changed and elevated.
“The level of influence teachers have over the future of our country is astronomical. This isn’t just another job and we need to help young people understand that,” Triplett said. “We’ve got to get our best to say, ‘Hey you can be a doctor or a lawyer – but you can also be a teacher and make a tremendous impact and feel proud of what you can offer.”
Integrating technology into the classroom, while expensive, is now a requirement for every school both large and small, Triplett said.
“I’m still a firm believer that technology doesn’t drive instruction but that doesn’t change the fact that we have to embrace technology,” Triplett said. “Once students reach post-secondary education, everything from online submission of their assignments to online course work and testing, that’s all part of the reality. It’s our job to make sure they’re ready for that and to use that technology in the most effective way possible.”
Her position as an advisor to the North Carolina State Board of Education has also allowed Triplett to lobby for something educators in western North Carolina have requested for years: calendar flexibility.
For more than a decade, each of North Carolina’s school districts have started the school year in late August and ended in late May or early June, but schools in the state’s mountain counties have long requested to begin their year earlier in August. That simple switch could allow districts that face heavy snowfall each year to build in more instructional time before winter arrives.
“That is a constant conversation with legislators I’ve talked with,” Triplett said. “The calendar comes up routinely and the (State Board of Education) is a proponent of local control of the calendar but state law would have to be changed to allow that. But it is a real issue. There has to be a better way to do this because our teachers are suffering because we’re spending so much time and energy on the calendar that could be better spent on anything else.”
Triplett said she’s looking forward to the prospect of returning to active teaching in August but said she’s also nervous. She doesn’t fear the time off has made her “rusty,” but the 2016-2017 school year will be a challenging one for Triplett. She’ll have to balance her instructional time with obligations to the State Board of Education.
“I am a little nervous about returning, but only because of the amount of time I’ll have to be out of the classroom this year,” Triplett said. “I’m hands-on and I enjoy being in the classroom, but this is going to be a year unlike anything I’ve experienced. Juggling those responsibilities, it’s going to be hard but I can’t wait to get back.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.