INSPIRED. Leslie Cottrell, 2019-20 Teacher of the Year

INSPIRED. Leslie Cottrell, 2019-20 Teacher of the Year

When Leslie Cottrell came to Greenwood Elementary as an AIG specialist in the fall of 2017, she quickly dubbed herself the students' “thinking coach.”

“I came up with this title at the beginning of the school year, so students would know what to expect when they saw me in the classroom,” Cottrell said, explaining that the variety of approaches to learning she utilizes with students is pretty vast. “We sing songs, but I'm not a music teacher. We create, but I'm not an art teacher. We read books and move our bodies, but I'm not a librarian or P.E. coach. I am there to pull all of these things together along with academic content and shine a light on how they think, and what type of thinking they are good at and how to develop their talents.”

Leslie Cottrell watching her students work.

That diversity of instruction – and the enthusiasm which she brings with her – paid off Monday night when Cottrell was named Lee County Schools' 2019-20 Teacher of the Year. Cottrell was joined by 15 other educators, each the teacher of the year from their individual schools, at a ceremony at Lee County High School.

Cottrell was largely silent upon learning from district Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan that she'd been selected as the winner Monday night – mostly out of shock. But after time to reflect on the award, she said it's an honor.

“Initially I was shocked,” she said. “But now that the news has sunk in, I'm determined to represent Greenwood and Lee County Schools to the best of my ability and I am proud to do so.”

Superintendent Dr. Bryan giving Leslie Cottrell her award.  

As an AIG specialist, Cottrell doesn't have a dedicated classroom or set teaching schedule – something she said make the award “all the more special” – and instead sees students in different grades and different classrooms at different times. She also helps teachers identify and differentiate gifted students and meets with parents to discuss the advanced course work those children will be doing.

“Honestly, I feel like this award is a reflection of the experience I am having as a teacher at Greenwood,” she said. “The content I am teaching and the way in which I can present the material is a culmination of my passions and my talents and therefore it allows me to shine.”

Leslie Cottrell showing off students' work.

Education is an important part of Cottrell’s home life – her husband Eugene is the band director at Pinecrest High School in Moore County, and her two children, Madi and Sydney, attend Lee Early College. Cottrell herself had been in education for a time, teaching at the Montessori School of Sanford for several years before she left to pursue other interests. She returned to public education in 2015, first at West Lee Middle School. While there, she worked with the district’s AIG coordinators, who thought she’d be a good fit for the job at Greenwood. 

“They felt I could develop and organize a program for Greenwood that would inspire the students and allow the teachers see the value of services the AIG specialist could provide at the school,” she said. “And Principal Aimee Petrarca was good enough to take a chance on me.”

Leslie Cottrell receiving her $500 check.

As the winner, Cottrell received a $500 check from 3D Community Church and a year's free use of a 2019 Chevrolet Malibu, courtesy of Wilkinson Chevrolet-Cadillac-Buick-GMC. Bryan told the attendees that the event was a celebration of something bigger than the 16 nominees.

Leslie Cottrell in her 2019 Chevrolet Malibu.

“This is a celebration not only of all of our teachers of the year, but a celebration of education, and of teaching,” he said, noting that the district's leadership felt that one of the best ways to recognize that was to hear from the previous winner, who also won NC North Central Teacher of the Year, Lee County High School AVID instructor Katie Eddings.

Eddings called teachers across the district and state “every day heroes” and told each of the nominees that they should be proud. She also reminded them to “breathe” throughout the ceremony. 

“I continue to be inspired by my colleagues and the work they do for the children of Lee County,” Eddings said. “Enjoy this moment. Each of you have an amazing story. Please keep telling that story.”

Leslie Cottrell playing her ukulele and singing about the continents with her students.  

For Cottrell, not much will change in terms of work – the day after the ceremony, she was back in classrooms around Greenwood, doing her best to connect with her students and help them understand that learning is a process they have to continue to work at.

“I tell them at the beginning of the class, just like athletes, we need to stretch and use our minds to get strong and more flexible with our thinking,” she said. “My time with the students is limited so when I can approach an academic or intellectual concept from a variety of different angles I will connect with more students and see where their strengths lie.”

At Monday's event, Bill Horner III, chairman of the Lee County Education Foundation, and Meg Moss, executive director of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance Chamber of Commerce, read statements about each of the 16 nominees.

Here are some excerpted statements about the good work of the other finalists:

Kelly Spahr, B.T. Bullock Elementary: “Kelly's classroom is, quite simply, magical. Ms. Spahr is deeply invested in developing positive relationships with her students, and knowing their individual strengths and challenges to masterfully cater to their complex needs. Whether students are dressed as detectives, unlocking clues through a reading activity, or acting as chefs solving a real world fraction conundrum, her students are always challenged and engaged in meaningful and rigorous learning experiences. She has high expectations and pushes children beyond their comfort level to grow academically.”

Daria Fedrick, Bragg Street Academy: “Upon moving to Sanford in the fall of 2009, Daria Fedrick fulfilled her genetically-destined profession – teaching. Both of her parents were educators, so she grew up around teachers and thought she understood the dynamics of the teaching profession. In 2014, she was motivated to change her teaching direction from traditional education to alternative education. Teaching at Bragg Street Academy has allowed her to blossom into a more conscious educator. To many of our students she mentors, she is affectionately known as Mama Fedrick.”

Jessica Morehouse, Broadway Elementary: “Jess is open with her students about her own difficulties as a student. Her experiences inspire and inform her relationships with her own students. Jess serves a wide variety of students in her role as a third grade reading teacher at Broadway Elementary. Some of her students arrive reading above grade level, some right around grade level and several of her students struggle to believe they can make it to grade level. She sees the same possibility of becoming a great reader, and leader, in all of them. A big reason for their accomplishments is that they have Jessica Morehouse as a teacher, and she knows that they can do it.”

Kim Newman, Deep River Elementary: “Kim's experiences combined have provided structure and flexibility to her daily kindergarten routines. She is the one who takes ownership of the responsibilities of being an educator, and she does so with all of her heart. In the words of Principal Amy Lundy, 'I have had the privilege of working alongside Ms. Newman as a former colleague and had the opportunity to oversee her as an administrator. My greatest pleasure of all has been having her as the teacher of my child. My child has not only learned the curriculum, but she has learned how to use that information in life. She absolutely loves school, and I attribute that to Ms. Newman. I speak for a multitude of parents when I say she is simply the best.'”

John Pier, East Lee Middle School: “A social studies colleague made the following statement: 'Mr. Pier goes above and beyond with the social studies department. He worked to create a unified curriculum for sixth, seventh and eighth grade. He works to help students and staff members at all grade levels.' John believes the following quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: 'Intelligence plus character. That is the true goal of education.' John is a reflection of his teaching philosophy. Teaching gives John pride, fulfillment and joy.

Jennifer Eudy, Floyd L. Knight: The staff at Floyd Knight strives to help each student be as independent and as functional as possible so they can be a productive citizen within the community. This process requires patience and understanding, as well as a tremendous amount of passion. Floyd L. Knight is honored to be represented by a teacher with all these qualities and much more. When asked about her teaching philosophy, Jennifer Eudy responds, 'I believe that every student has the ability to learn when provided with the appropriate tools and opportunity to do so. Each student possesses their own unique way of acquiring knowledge. Growing up, I never said that I wanted to be a teacher. But I always had the desire to be around and work with individuals with special needs.'” 

Kelly Davis, J. Glenn Edwards Elementary: “Brian Adams once said 'learn the art of patience. Patience creates confidence, decisiveness and a rational outlook, which eventually leads to success.' Kelly Davis has the art of patience, as she creates a classroom environment of love and kindness where all the students are valued. Ms. Davis strives to build special relationships with each individual student, and you can feel Kelly's inspiring love and kindness upon walking into her classroom, or just being in her presence. Ms. Davis had always had a love for helping others, and she went into teaching to help and inspire each child to reach his or her greatest potential while believing in them and teaching them to believe in themselves. Kelly Davis exudes a love and passion for children and learning.”

Denise Cash-Pinckney, J.R. Ingram Elementary: “Every year, parents and students beg her to loop to the next grade, and one of her lucky two-year-in-a-row students enthusiastically stated 'I really think she needs an extra $2,000 each month in her paycheck because she's honestly the best teacher ever.' Ms. Pinckney's colleagues describe her as someone who is consistently in a positive mood and continually strives to do her best, while encouraging her colleagues to do the same. Ingram's principal describes her as someone you just want to watch teach all day long. She is masterfully captivating, and Ingram is truly blessed to call her one of our own.”

Quinlan Henry, Lee County High School: “Mr. Henry's inspiration for becoming a teacher came from his father, who taught in the career technical education field for 34 years. Mr. Henry spent a lot of time in his father's classroom, where he was exposed to cutting edge technology, which instilled a love for teaching that still resonates with him today. Mr. Henry is always focused on what he can do to help support students and make sure they are prepared for the world beyond high school. He is always willing to lend a helping hand, and he is the epitome of what we all look for in a teacher. Mr. Henry embodies the true spirit of what it means to be a Lee County High School Yellow Jacket.”

Katelyn Regan, Lee Early College:Katelyn is the unsung hero of Lee Early College. Ms. Regan does whatever is needed for her students and our school to grow and succeed. Her lessons are creative, engaging and fun. She is always challenging herself and her students to improve. She provides guidance and encouragement to all students, and is committed to helping them become the best version of themselves possible. In addition to teaching, Ms. Regan sponsors many clubs. In fact, she sponsors more clubs than there are days in the week, and none of us are really quite sure how she does it all. She serves our students, staff and school community with a smile. She works tirelessly each day to ensure that LEC is a great place to work and learn.” 

Bianca Di Marcello, SanLee Middle School: “Ms. D, as she is lovingly referred to by her students, is an eighth-grade language arts and English teacher. Bianca believes it is important to create a safe, strong community for her students in her classroom. She aims to connect each with each child individually, and strives to provide a safe and supportive class culture so all students are able to contribute and grow. When Ms. D's students were asked what makes her special, they used descriptors like 'loving,' 'caring,' 'truthful,' 'patient' and 'encouraging.' One student wrote 'she believed in me when I didn't believe in myself.' Bianca Di Marcello is the epitome of what we believe makes a great teacher through her relentless support for her students, colleagues and our school community.” 

Amy McDonald, Southern Lee High School: “Ms. McDonald believes in forming positive, meaningful relationships with both students and parents, which helps to develop a strong network of support that supports students with disabilities throughout their high school career. In her own words, she stated 'not only is a student more prepared for learning when their basic needs are met, but their perspective on school improves when they feel loved and supported.' To anyone considering a career in education, Ms. McDonald was quick to say that there is no better teacher than experience. 'No degree will fully prepare you for the situations you will face as a teacher,' she stated, 'and it is completely normal to ask tons of questions.'” 

Tina Harrington, Tramway Elementary: “'I am thankful to do a job that I love.' You will hear Tramway's teacher of the year use this phrase any time she is complimented on her dedication to the profession and her students. When the votes came in for our 2019 teacher of the year on campus, we knew we had to do something different to introduce this fun-loving teacher. The Tiger Shark staff gathered and this is what they heard: 'Roses are red, Tiger Sharks are blue/Being a teacher is what she was born to do/She welcomes each student to her classroom like they are her own/She showers them with love and presses until they have grown/With parents, she is a gift. She calms every fear/From the minute they walk in, and all through the year/Her colleagues are lucky to laugh along and sometimes cry/She puts God first, with her faith she is not shy/She values her family like no other, and it is so fun to watch her both as a colleague and a mother/ We sometimes get to see her do a cartwheel so high/For Tina Harrington is Tramway's T.O.Y.'”

Joy Smith, Warren Williams Alternative: “Joy Smith was inspired to enter teaching and early childhood education after seeing the benefits of early intervention with her own children. This young teacher appreciates that all people are individuals with different learning strengths and weaknesses. She focuses her time on building on the strengths of her students to enable them to reach their fullest potential. She does this in many ways. First, she is an outstanding classroom teacher. So strong and so outstanding in fact, that her reputation as a teacher and advocate for children with disabilities spreads as far as South Korea, where a deployed soldier moved his family to Sanford, North Carolina so that their child could be taught by this outstanding educator. Teacher, advocate, leader, mentor and inspiration – a true educator.” 

Rachel Davis, West Lee Middle School: “Rachel Davis is committed to teaching and mentoring students both in and out of the classroom. Her heart for others shines in all that she does. She builds positive relationships with her peers and students, and is well-respected among both. Whenever there is a need in the school, she is one of the first to volunteer to help out. She is someone who does whatever it takes, and always puts the needs of the children first, which is why we are proud and honored that Ms. Davis is representing the Pride of West Lee as our teacher of the year.”


Inspired is a digital digest published each week during the academic year by Lee County Schools to highlight accomplishments of students, faculty and staff. 

All Inspired articles are available online at www.lee.k12.nc.us, and if you have any story ideas, please send them to inspired@lee.k12.nc.us.