Here Are Carolina Parent’s 2020 Teachers of the Year

You nominated. We selected. Meet these star educators in the Triangle
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Earlier this fall, readers of Carolina Parent and Charlotte Parent submitted hundreds of nominations for exceptional teachers in their areas. Below, find the ones selected in the Triangle for the levels of preschool, elementary, middle school, and high school:


Samaiya Tafirenyika
Pre-K Teacher at The Goddard School—Raleigh Ridge

Nomination excerpt: “Ms. Samaiya is the heartbeat of our school. She teaches with consistency and compassion, but isn’t afraid to bring science concepts to the tables of the toddlers she teaches, planting seeds of kindness on one front and inquiry on another. During recent months, she’s traveled to her toddlers’ homes to place signs in their yard that she misses them and holds weekly Zoom sessions to stay connected with those friends still at home. In addition to her students, Ms. Samaiya elevates our program to the next level by using her vast early childhood education and experience to mentor her co-teacher, modeling best practice and classroom management strategies that are unparalleled. She partners with our parents through regular communication and inviting them into the classroom as often as possible. As the cherry on top, she ensures her play space is aesthetically pleasing by spending time sanitizing, documenting her toddlers’ learning by making creative displays of which children and families can be proud. Ms. Samaiya aligns with the values of our families and our program, epitomizing Teacher of the Year!”

Thumbnail Img 2468Hometown: Raleigh

Currently lives: Knightdale
Currently reading: A Song of Fire and Ice. I was a big Game of Thrones fan.

Why did you become a teacher? I always enjoyed the idea of helping children learn and grow, and (I) admired the teachers I had growing up as a child that believed in me or took the time to engage us to learn. As I continued my own education and spent more time with children, I felt teaching was something I was meant to do and ultimately something I loved doing even when I may seem hard.

What’s the hardest part of teaching during a global pandemic? The hardest part about teaching during a global pandemic is staying motivated and not becoming overwhelmed and stressed by new challenges that we all now face. You not only care about your own health and safety but those around you that you care for and care for you. As a teacher, I am grateful to still be able to teach and do what I love but additional health and safety procedures and protocols that must be followed at schools for everyone’s safety and protection also create new obstacles between the way we communicate and interact with children and their families. During this time, we had to find new ways to stay connected, informed, and involved whenever possible, all still providing the same attention to care and education that we did before.

What’s been your proudest moment as an educator? My proudest moment would be experiencing the feeling a child has a connection with you as a teacher and that you are making a difference in how they grow and learn. This is even more special when the parents recognize how much you love what you do and care about their child and appreciate your dedication.

What’s been your biggest teaching fail to date? Lacking organization and misplacing lesson planning materials in the classroom and doing them all over again, only to find them later.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of the classroom? My favorite things to do outside the classroom are to relax with good music and good food and my favorite people.

What’s the best teaching advice you ever received? The best advice I’ve received is to be confident in your abilities: You don’t have to be the perfect teacher to impact the lives of the children you teach or for others to see that you love what you do. Your actions and dedication will speak for itself.


Casey Buzzerio
2nd Grade Teacher at Pine Springs Preparatory Academy

Nomination excerpts: “Mrs. Buzzerio goes above and beyond caring about our students she even made visits to our driveways during this virus situation we are really going to miss her next year.”

“Casey by far is the best candidate for teacher of the year. I have know her since she was three and her love for teaching started then. I sat in her pretend classroom and was taken back by this little girls abilities, she truly was born with this amazing gift. Today she has fulfilled her dream and her students are truly lucky to have this amazing young lady as their teacher. I nominate Casey Buzzerio for Teacher of the Year”
Thumbnail Image0 (1)Family Status: Married to Jeff Buzzerio for almost 3 years. Have 2 dogs, Black Jack and Bella
Hometown: Destin, FL
Currently Lives: Fuquay Varina, NC (just moved from Apex in August)
Currently Reading: A Ripple in Maggie Pond by Jody Cleven

Why did you become a teacher? I knew I wanted to become a teacher at a very young age. I want to inspire children to be the best version of themselves and to never give up. I want to lead by example by treating them with kindness and respect. I want to educate them in a way that will not only prepare them for the future but will help them succeed in all their future endeavors.

What’s been the hardest part about teaching through a global pandemic? The hardest part about teaching through a global pandemic would have to be social distancing and having the feeling of helplessness. There have been many times where I wish I could have done more for my students and was unable to do so.

What’s been your proudest moment as an educator? My proudest moment as an educator would have to be the day my student, who was unable to read more than a handful of sight words at the beginning of 2nd grade, passed the end of grade reading level requirement for 2nd grade with flying colors.

What’s been your biggest teaching fail to date? My biggest teaching fail would have to be the day I got kicked out of Zoom during my math lesson.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of the classroom? My favorite thing to do outside of the classroom include spending time with my husband and our dogs, Bella and Black Jack, going on nature walks, and making crafts.

What’s the best teaching advice you ever received? The best advice I ever received was from my mother, who was a first grade teacher for 8 years, and she said, “Never be afraid to stray from your lesson plan if the students are engaged and it’s a teachable moment.”


Jenny Hundertmark
Literature, Language Arts, and Religion Teacher at Resurrection Lutheran School

Nomination excerpt: “She is a kind and humble teacher. My son has had her for a teacher for the last three years for Language Arts and Literature. Even though this is a challenging subject for my son he still enjoys being in her class. She come to the home basketball games, she coached the girls soccer team, is always at carpool, and while challenging her students in class she is also kind in her words to them. During the switch to teaching online for COVID-19 she sent her students an e-mail and was very vunerable with them about how this was all going to happen. When my son was having difficulty with online learning she sent me email letting me know she was there for me and my son and he was in her prayers. Mrs H is one of the best teachers.”

Thumbnail Img 0171Family Status: Married for 26 years, three daughters.
Hometown: Lake Worth, Florida
Currently Lives: Cary, NC
Currently Reading: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Why did you become a teacher? I started my professional life as a journalist and fell into teaching by accident. After a few months of teaching Sunday school, I realized my true passion is working with middle school kids. There’s never a dull moment with middle school kids!

What’s been the hardest part about teaching through a global pandemic? The hardest part of teaching through the pandemic has been the challenge of maintaining personal connections with the students who are virtual. In addition, it’s challenging to balance the academic objectives with the students’ emotional needs during these crazy times.

What’s been your proudest moment as an educator? Every time a student returns after graduation to say thank you for all they learned!

What’s been your biggest teaching fail to date? Oh so many; it’s hard to say. But, most likely it’s the students who struggled, and I wasn’t able to reach them. I’m always left wondering if there was more I could have done.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of the classroom? I love reading, hiking, traveling, and being with my family.

What’s the best teaching advice you ever received? The first and best piece of advice I ever received about teaching was to read Harry Wong’s book, The First Days of School. It’s carried me through my entire teaching career.


Athena Reaves
Theatre teacher at Apex Friendship High School

Nomination excerpt: “Ms. Reaves has always been a champion for her students, but now more than ever, in the face of this unexpected and unprecendented time she has shown her true passion for her students! As the theatre teacher at AFHS, she had one-day’s notice that the stay-at-home order was going into place, and school was closing. She knew the 60+ theatre, band, and dance students who had been rehearsing the spring musical for 3 months would be devastated! The show would never open, never be shared with an audience. So, up all night, searching for a solution, the next morning she asked her principal if she could invite parents to come in that very afternoon to have the opportunity to see the production. He said, “The Stay-At-Home order doesn’t start until midnight, so you have a few hours to make it happen.” And that she did! At 3pm that very day, parents flowed into the auditorium. Students donned the costumes they’d never worn, set the stage with the unfinished set, and tuned their instruments to play the score. Ms. Reaves announced to parents, “This is a rehearsal and our one-and-only performance. These kids have put their heart and soul into this production, and we are so proud to be able to share it with you, even if it’s just for this one performance. Please know that there may be mistakes, missed cues, forgotten lines and more. We’re still rehearsing. (laugh) But we know you’ll enjoy the spirit of the show. And that’s what matters!” And with that, the production started. I still get tears as I think about the joy in the room. We laughed, we cried, we applauded. And the students received the memory of a lifetime. It was a true testament to the mantra that “the show must go on.” And in all ways, that is exactly what Athena Reaves teaches – no matter what, the show must go on! She believes in her students and supports them every step of the way. She is relentless in her pursuit of theatre education, not just for onstage performers, but to teach kids that even in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, they can be part of something larger than themselves. And… the show always goes on!”

Headshot 2 (1)Family Status: ​Married, husband (Joshua Reaves) is Director of Theatre at NC State; two kids: Piera (age 9, 3rd grade) and Aidan (age 7, 2nd grade); and Odie, our 11-month-old Golden Retriever.

Hometown: ​I grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Currently Lives: ​Fuquay-Varina

Currently Reading: ​I actually just finished rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My daughter is heavily into Harry Potter right now and I felt a need to reread that last book again.

Why did you become a teacher? ​When I was in high school, I watched how Theatre (class and productions) was a place for people to find themselves. I watched my then boyfriend (and now husband) overcome a lot of obstacles in his life and find a home, a second family in the theatre world at our old high school, Garner High. Watching Theatre transform people and give them a place to belong became a goal of mine. Teaching this beautiful art form fit me like it was made for me and I for it.

What’s been the hardest part about teaching through a global pandemic? ​Connecting with my students. My students tend to call me “mom” or “school mom” and I love it. They know I will always be there forthem and help in any way I can. Through virtual learning this task has become even more needed and even more difficult. My students and to be honest, myself- we are all struggling. Struggling with life and struggling with learning virtually. I take time to talk with them individually, as often as I can, but it is so hard.

What’s been your proudest moment as an educator?Years ago, when I was teaching at Middle Creek High School, I had the most difficult student. He was very close minded, opinionated, and hard to work with in an open, loving, and accepting atmosphere. At the end of the semester, in that class- he thanked me. He thanked me for opening his mind to accepting other people as they are. He thanked me for helping him see how similar we all are. If I achieve anything in my career, it is that I can bring more of that into this world, Acceptance and Love.

What’s been your biggest teaching fail to date? ​I had a student confide in me about some personal issues they were having at the time with their relationship with their family’s religion. I listened and encouraged the student to talk with their parents. That parent came to me, after that student had spoken with them, and we talked. The parent went back to the student and told them inaccurate things about our conversation, things that meant I betrayed the student’s trust and feelings. The student was so upset with me, so distraught by it- they dropped out of my program completely. I spoke with the student, I tried to get them to understand I didn’t betray them- but I wouldn’t allow the student to think of their parent as the bad person. This meant, I had to take the fall. I had to let them hate me. Nothing is more important than family- I have ALWAYS told my students that. In order to continue that teaching, I had to take the fall for something, to save that student with their family. It was the hardest thing I have ever done.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of the classroom? ​My family, my kids, playing with them, laughing with them- they are my everything. I also enjoy baking, painting, and hanging out with my wonderful neighbors.

What’s the best teaching advice you ever received?Years ago, a mentor and friend of mine (who was my choir teacher in high school and then my co-worker at Middle Creek HS) taught me a single phrase that has guided me through teaching and my life. “Teach them through the back door.” This saying has always stuck with me. When they are struggling to learn, the lesson or in general- teaching them through the back door means teaching them when they don’t even realize they are learning. This has always helped me achieve good things with my students and program. We have fun learning. They don’t even realize the life hacks that comes along with theatre and I love every second of it.

Categories: Education

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