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    There’s a sorry old saying: “Those who can’t do, teach.”
    Well, Karen Koonce, Cumberland County’s 2008 Teacher of the Year, burns that ugly proverb down to the water line by involving students, parents and fellow teachers in a learning process that is certainly “can do.”
    “She is a really, really hard worker,” said Betty Musselwhite — Koonce’s boss, principal and “mentor” at VanStory Hills Elementary. “She soaks up everything that is around her to help students, and she shares with fellow teachers.”
    {mosimage}Koonce, who teaches third grade at VanStory Hills was chosen from a group of eight finalists last week at a ceremony held at the Crown Coliseum, where she said teaching is all about “empowerment.”
    “When we empower teachers, we empower children,” Koonce told an audience of educators and their families.
    Despite reaching the pinnacle of her craft, Koonce didn’t figure out she was going to be an educator until late in life. She attended Wake Forest University believing she wanted to become a pediatric oncologist. But then, she hit a wall ... a wall made of test tubes and beakers and autoclaves.
    “I thought I would be an oncologist,” said Koonce, “but then I took an introductory chemistry course and changed my mind about following a career in medicine.”
    While studying education, Koonce said a pair of professors impressed her so much that she decided to teach elementary school. She later obtained a master’s degree in education leadership from George Mason University.
    Koonce, who has earned her certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standard,  began her journey as a teacher in Prince George County, Md., where she figured out from the start she had something in common with her students: “I realized I had a lot to learn. But it didn’t stop me ... I just worked harder.”
    Koonce and the other 84 candidates for teacher of the year assembled portfolios and were interviewed by a selection committee that included last year’s winner, Vickie L. Ferguson, a math teacher at Seventy-First High School.
    Before the award presentation, Superintendent Bill Harrison had encouraging words for all the teacher-of-the-year candidates.
    Harrison said he can remember the names of all of his teachers from his school days in suburban Philadelphia, however, “I can’t for the life of me remember who the superintendent was,” he joked.
But Harrison said teaching is much more difficult than when he broke in as a student teacher back in 1974 — coincidentally enough, at VanStory Elementary.
    “We didn’t have children coming to school with the baggage that they do today,” Harrison said. “We should celebrate what you do every day.”
    Koonce will move on to a regional competition, with an eye toward the awarding of North Carolina Teacher of the Year laurels next spring.
    As the Cumberland representative, Koonce will receive $500 from the county school system, another $200 from the county education foundation, a gift certificate to use at Cross Creek Mall, a commemorative ring, a plaque and flowers.
    First runner-up was Heather Kurtz of Cape Fear High School and second runner-up was Richard Bailey of Jack Britt High School.
    But perhaps the greatest prizes endowed up on Koonce are the love and respect of her students.
    “We had so much fun the day after I won the award,” said Koonce. “I gave them a homework pass and we had doughnuts and decorated the classroom. It was great.
    “I was just shocked by this award,” added Koonce. “And I love teaching here at Vanstory ... I’m in the place every teacher deserves to be.”
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