Traci D. McManus from Wilkesboro Elementary is teacher of the year and Dr. Heather M. Freeman from North Wilkes Middle is principal of year for the Wilkes County Schools for 2021-22.

Their selections for these honors, along with their comments and comments of others, are included in a YouTube video posted March 30.

The video is in lieu of the annual Teacher/Principal of the Year Awards Dinner at the Stone Center in North Wilkesboro due to the pandemic. It can be found at

McManus and Freeman now advance to regional competition.

Teacher of the YearMcManus said she was grateful to all who shaped her to become the teacher she is today. “This award kind of encompasses all of those people and the influence they’ve had on my career.”

She said former teachers taught her that humor can keep kids engaged and wanting to come back to school to learn, while administrators set high expectations for her.

“My current principal, Becky Spears, constantly challenges me and encourages me to grow as an educator.” McManus noted the support and influence of fellow third-grade teachers Holly Stone and Alisha Minton.

“Most importantly I am most thankful and grateful for my students. They are my heart…. They are behind my passion and my love for teaching. I continue to push myself every day for them,” she said.

“My goal is to always have a classroom that is open and a community that is engaging and fun where kids want to come to school every day.”

She thanked her husband, Brian, and her daughters, Sidney, Peyton and Addison, for their support.

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said every day in McManus’ classroom is a celebration of learning, growing and sharing the joys of the school day.

He said McManus approaches the challenge of teaching third grade with energy, creativity and fun. Her strong relationships with families have a powerful impact on students, he added.

According to Mrs. Spears, Byrd said, McManus believes in second chances and focusing on progress over perfection. “She models how to be a good citizen and great encourager.”

McManus has a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University.

Also nominated by their schools for teacher of the year were Michelle Hartley, Boomer-Ferguson Elementary; Emily Fulcher, C.B. Eller Elementary; Katie Trivette Wright, C.C. Wright Elementary; Hayley S. Trivette, Central Wilkes Middle; Joan W. Sparks, East Wilkes High; Kari Reeves, East Wilkes Middle; Laurin Mayberry, Millers Creek Elementary; Tina Waller, Moravian Falls Elementary; Savannah Kilby, Mount Pleasant Elementary; Ashley York, Mountain View Elementary; Ali Carr, Mulberry Elementary; Sarah Miles, North Wilkes High; Kelly Trivette, North Wilkes Middle; Zana Whittington, North Wilkesboro Elementary; William Pearson, Roaring River Elementary; Melanie Yarboro, Ronda-Clingman Elementary; Penny Pruitt, Traphill Elementary; Megan Gambill, West Wilkes High; Jennifer Estes, Wilkes Central High; and Daniel Sluder, Wilkes Early College High School.

Principal of the YearFreeman said her grandmothers worked and retired from the Wilkes schools, one as a teacher assistant at Millers Creek Elementary and the other a food nutrition staff member at Wilkesboro Elementary.

“I remember as a small child seeing the joy in their hearts from helping others and I knew I wanted to feel just like that in my work someday.”

Freeman said she wanted to thank God for giving her the opportunity to do what she loves every day for the last 21 years.

She said teachers who influenced her when she was a student in the Wilkes schools included Sylvia Robinson, Lynn and William Clark, Ginger Bentley and Norma Collins. “Their dedication convinced me to pursue the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Scholarship… and then the hope of one day having my own classroom.”

Freeman added that she has been fortunate to work with outstanding professionals in the Wilkes schools, including Danielle Dowell, Amy Samples, James Byrd, Cindy Fowler and Candy Greer.

She said North Wilkes Middle staff always work hard to do what is in the best interest of students and families, while looking for ways to generate equity in learning opportunities and collaborating.

She thanked her husband, Joel, and her daughters, McKenna and Addison, for their support “and for so often making sacrifices so I can be the best educator I can be.”

Freeman began her career in the Wilkes schools in 2002 as a math teacher at Wilkes Central High and became a principal in 2015.

Byrd said she engaged staff in changes at North Middle to best serve students and their families. Freeman also led students, faculty and staff in implementing the Franklin Covey Leader in Me program at North Middle, which achieved “Lighthouse” status under this initiative in 2019.

Byrd said overall efficiency in reading at North Middle rose by 6.1% and by 9.1% in math in the last four years under her leadership.

Other nominees for principal of the year were David Johnson at North Wilkes High, Dr. Dion Stocks at Wilkes Central High and Michelle Shepherd at Wilkes Early College High School.

Experiences during pandemicAlicia Stone, 2020-21 Wilkes teacher of the year, said experiences during the pandemic reiterated that the most important aspect of teaching is relationships.

She said teachers started teaching remotely with little or no training but nothing could have prepared them for the past year.

It was among the most, if not the most, challenging times teachers would ever experience, said Stone. “But I am a stronger teacher because of it.”

She recalled her anxiety over teaching remotely and first hearing the terms Zoom, virtual classroom and Bitmoji. (Bitmoji is a social media app used to create a cartoon version of one’s self.)

Stone experienced this while helping her two elementary grade children, Samuel and Nathaniel, adjust to remote learning,

A teacher for 17 years, she said her tips for teaching in a pandemic are, first, keep students safe; second, lower their anxiety; third, make them laugh; fourth, make them feel wanted; and fifth, teach them something, “all in this order.”

She said a quote she read summed up the experience, “We can’t always choose the music life plays for us but we can choose how we dance to it.”

She also said teaching is a mission and teachers are in the mission field every day. She thanked God for His blessings, as well as her husband, Robbie, and two sons for their support.

Stone is a Wilkes native and product of the Wilkes schools.

Her father worked at the Wilkes School Bus Garage and her mother drove a school bus and was a substitute teacher and PTO volunteer.

West Wilkes Middle Principal Pam Huffman, 2020-21 Wilkes principal of the year, commented on the impact of the pandemic.

“Who would have known education would change forever” five days after last year’s Wilkes teacher and principal of the year event when the Wilkes schools had to start fulltime remote learning.

Huffman said she’s grateful for learning fundamentals as a student, teacher and assistant principal, but new things were learned in the past year.

“Some of the things that are going to focus us on the future are those things” learned in the pandemic, including the importance of home visits and how to utilize technology, she said.

Huffman urged fellow Wilkes school employees to give themselves grace and think about what was accomplished. “It wasn’t a perfect year and we didn’t know what the unexpected would bring.”

Huffman spoke about teachers who influenced her while she was a student in the Alleghany County Schools, including Bill Jarrett, whom she said arrived early in the morning well before his first class to provide tutoring or time to finish homework. He also did this on his lunch break.

Byrd said events of the 2020-21 school year demonstrated how fortunate Wilkes is to have quality educators. He said effective leadership is more important now than ever.

“I can say without a doubt that the job of a principal is harder than ever before.”

Dr. Westley Wood, associate superintendent, introduced the 2021-22 teacher of year and principal of the year selection committee, consisting of Alicia Stone, 2020-21 Wilkes teacher of the year; Carol Cleary, assistant principal at Wilkesboro Elementary School; and Susan Bachmeier, chief nursing officer at Wilkes Medical Center.

Wood noted the “do whatever it takes” attitude displayed by teachers and staff during the recent challenging times.

Rudy Holbrook, chairman of the Wilkes school board, congratulated all of those nominated for teacher or principal of the year, plus all of the other teachers and principals for how they handled during the pandemic.

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