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Teaching with distinction [Cuthbertson Middle teacher wins Terry Sanford award]

Cuthbertson Middle School teacher, Brenda Stewart, stops by seventh-grader Erick Wingate's desk to offer tips on Monday's class project. (RICK CRIDER/Enquirer-Journal)

(The following is an article about Brenda Stewart written by Enquirer Journal reporter Tiffany Jothen on Tuesday, March 21, 2011).

She drives an hour and 10 minutes one way to teach kids who are often forgotten. She refers to one class as “my boys” and kneels by each one, patiently explaining a math problem or the parts of a cell.

Brenda Stewart, a special education teacher at Cuthbertson Middle, won the 2011 Terry Sanford Award for Creativity and Innovation, presented by the N.C. Association of Educators on Thursday.

“My name may be on the plaque, but if it weren’t for my students, I wouldn’t have a reason to teach,” she said.

Stewart began her career 22 years ago. She started out with juvenile delinquents and has experience as a media specialist, but embraces her position teaching exceptional children.

The mother of four recalls her own experiences with two sons declared special education students in elementary school. Now in high school, they take honor-level classes.

“Nothing’s impossible,” Stewart said.

Teaching special ed is challenging, yet she prevails, remembering a comment she once heard from a student: “Ms. Stewart, you know you are wasting our time. Nobody cares what we do ’cause we are the EC kids.”

Stewart’s room is filled with her favorite color — green — including a green sign pinned to a cork board that reads: “I’m proud of you.”

“I’m just amazed at her fortitude,” Benton Heights Elementary teacher Dawn Moretz said.

Moretz serves on NCAE’s instructional and professional development committee. She did not judge Stewart’s award submission since both teach in Union County.

“I’m so impressed with her work ethic ... in spite of her own health issues,” Moretz said.

Stewart recently had problems with her shoulder. Still, she teaches — not one subject, but four. She is certified to teach math, English, science and social studies.

Last year’s winner, Jennifer Card, also hails from Union County. Card is a PE teacher at Unionville Elementary and won for her submission on healthy living.

This year’s theme was “empowering students to think globally and act locally.” Stewart, a National Board Certified teacher, received recognition for a project called “holiday happening.”

“My class looks like a mini United Nations,” she said. “Of my nine students, one was born in India, one is Puerto Rican, one is Mexican, one is African American, one is Jewish and several are Christians. Taking their nationalities and religious beliefs into consideration, I wanted them to better understand their heritage.”

Students created holiday displays, wrote reports and designed presentations to share with students, staff and administration.

Cuthbertson Middle principal Laurel Healy noticed how much more confidence students had as experts on their subjects. She commended Stewart’s ability to meet students’ needs, regardless of performance level, strengths or weaknesses.

What motivates her creativity?

“I don’t sleep,” Stewart said. “A lot of my best thinking comes at 2 a.m.”

She keeps a notepad by her bed for early morning brainstorming.

Fellow EC teacher PJ Cognac nominated Stewart for the award. Healy drove her to the awards banquet, knowing Stewart didn’t feel well and quietly hiding the fact that Stewart won.

Stewart’s award is named after former governor Terry Sanford, and submissions are open to anyone in NCAE. Stewart finds a little irony in her win.

Stewart was born in 1966, the year the award was established, and graduated from Pfeiffer University in 1988, the year Terry Sanford served as the commencement speaker.

Part of her award was a check for $1,000.

“I was told it’s supposed to be spent on me,” Stewart said. “Both of my daughters do have new tires on their cars now, ... but I got a pedicure.”

Written by: Tiffany Jothen, Enquirer-Journal reporter
Posted: Mar 22, 2011 by Don Mace

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