For Sandra Starling, L.C. Kerr School is home.
“I can claim it as mine because I had it for four years,” Starling said about attending as a child in the 1970s.
The kindergarten teacher was named the 2015-2016 Jack & Kitty Morisey Teacher of the Year for Clinton City Schools. Starling was notified about the award during the district’s End of Year Celebration at Clinton High School’s Prestage Auditorium on Thursday. The event also featured recognitions for retirees, perfect attendance and custodians.
“It’s already overwhelming,” Starling said. “I’m excited.”
Her road to becoming Teacher of the Year was not an easy one. Starling was challenged to educate her students while dealing with the loss of her father, Sam Quinn, in February. Back in October, the 17-year cancer survivor received treatments in Goldsboro which required the family to travel back and forth for visits. As the only child in her family, Starling played the role of a caregiver and a daughter.
During that period, she was notified by Assistant Principal Tony Faison about being a candidate to represent the school. At first, Starling was hesitant about going through with the process because there was too much going on in her life. But when Starling said ‘no,’ she was pushed by Faison to accept the challenge. She referenced words spoken by her mother, Gurley Quinn, for encouragement — “If you can believe it, you can achieve it.”
The process for Teacher of the Year occurred around the time when she was being observed by school officials.
As a Clinton native, Starling attended the school, grew up in the nearby neighborhood and graduated from Clinton High School. L.C. Kerr was her first teaching job. Prior before becoming an educator, she worked for Piedmont Airlines as a customer service agent. After 9/11 she had close to 20 years of seniority and she was sent home on a furlough. With a toddler, her daughter Anna, she wondered what she was going to do next.
She was asked to return but decided to go another route — teaching.
“When I was a little girl, I lined up baby dolls and stuffed animals, passed out papers and pretended to be a teacher,” Starling said reflecting on her childhood. “Maybe I really need to be a teacher.”
With the help of her family, she received her degrees for teaching. When arriving at L.C. Kerr, she originally planned to teach second grade, but ended up in a kindergarten classroom and teaching her own daughter for a couple of months.
“It was never my intention,” she said. “It frightened me to be her teacher. But it was the best thing that could have happened. After it was said and done and she moved on, I realized how much I loved that experience.”
For nine years, she has not taught another grade level.
“Kindergarten is where my passion is at,” she said with a smile. “That’s where I want to be.”
Her zeal for kindergartners led to her being on stage Thursday with some of the other top educators in the district. While standing in the spotlight, she had doubts about her name being called as the recipient for Teacher of the Year.
“It’s just an to represent a school system that you traveled through all your school life and be acknowledge for your hard work and dedication,” she said. “This is the time of year, especially in elementary, where parents acknowledge that you made a difference in their child’s life. Likewise, I let the parents know that their children has made a difference in my life.”
Her favorite moments of teaching kindergarten are making connections with her students, especially when they call her “mom.”
“They trust, they feel safe and they know you love them when they call you mom,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll catch themselves and say ‘you’re Mrs. Starling.’”
It often happens several times of the year and sometimes she is called “grandma” too.
“I’ll take the momma compliment,” she said with a chuckle referring to the age reference. “But I’ll have to say backup with grandma compliment.”
Principal Jan Smith and Faison were proud of her recent accomplishment.
“I think they selected a great person to be teacher of the year,” Smith said. “In her classroom, she has wonderful things going on. She does small group instruction, large group instruction and hand-on activities. She provides the needs of all of her children by providing good instruction.”
Faison noted how she had a rough year while showing empathy. He was able to relate because he lost his father a few years ago.
“I think it’s a very good choice and she earned it,” Faison said. “If I had children again, I would definitely want her to teach them. It was a good selection. I was very proud of her.”
Starling humbly said all of the representatives were well deserving of the honor as well. She said the school system is full of caring people.
“We are just really supportive of each other and it’s just like a family,” Starling said. “It’s just like a family. If you got a family, then you got a home.”
It’s where she wants to stay.
“As far as packing my bags and moving on, I’ve unpacked my bags.”