Some might say Mark Burr was destined by fate to win the 2011-2012 Richmond County Teacher of the Year Award.
It was fate that brought the Hamlet Middle School Science teacher to Richmond County, and fate that made him stay.
“My parents are from Richmond County, but I grew up in Virginia,” said Burr. “The summer I graduated high school, they announced that they were moving back here and I was coming with them. Oh, I was miserable. It was hot, I didn’t know anyone — it was the summer of my senior year, I wanted to be with my friends back home.”
He looked forward to going back to Virginia at the end of summer, to attend Bridgewater College on a football scholarship.
“I played football and ran track in high school,” he said.
One Sunday, he sat down at church with his parents and a “little old lady” tapped him on the shoulder until he turned around.
She said, “See that girl up there playing piano? She’s the preacher’s daughter and she doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
Burr said he was skeptical, but couldn’t help looking.
“The girl at the piano was wearing a white dress and had a Dorothy Hamill haircut,” he said. “I have to admit, I liked the way she looked!”
Young romance blossomed but, as summer neared its end, his new love said she wished he could find a college closer to home.
“I kept all the letters and scholarship offers from the colleges that contacted me,” said Burr. “I dug through them, looking for a school that would let me stay near this girl. She was a senior in high school at the time, and I knew she was the one.”
Relieved when he found an offer from Pembroke University, he contacted the track coach in hopes that he wasn’t too late to accept the scholarship.
“I had been listed in D.C. Striders as a Top 100 runner, and thankfully the coach remembered me,” he said. “I signed on to run track at Pembroke.”
His adviser at the college asked him what he wanted to choose as his major. He had no idea.
“She asked me what I was interested in,” he said. “I told her I was there to run track!”
The wise adviser suggested that he major in physical education, and told him that with a few extra classes he could double major in biology as well.
“That was the smartest thing any adviser ever told me,” he said.”Teaching science just naturally followed that — I think I was led to do it.”
He and his love transferred to Liberty University together, finished school and were married. Burr’s teaching career began in areas of Florida and South Carolina. They eventually moved back to Richmond County, where she quickly landed a job as a math teacher.
It took Burr a bit longer, but he eventually found a job here too, in Hamlet, and has been challenging students in Richmond County since 1992.
“I still feel a strong allegiance to Dr. Beck because he’s the one who hired me to teach here all those years ago,” said Burr. “I got a call with another job offer, but was so glad to be able to turn it down and say ‘I’m happy where I am.’”
As the school’s football coach, he’s had names like Melvin Ingram, Jamar Bryant and Dannell Ellerbe under his wing on the field.
“You know, the funny thing about Dannell was that he sat the bench when he played for me,” Burr laughed and shook his head. “I saw him play at a Richmond Senior game later and couldn’t believe it was the same kid. He didn’t do any of that for me!”
Time passed, and Hamlet Jr. High was changed to Hamlet Middle when the ninth grade academy was created.
“I left Hamlet to teach at the Early College one year,” he said. “I will be honest, I loved it because the students were so dedicated. But since my wife is a teacher too, our vacation schedules were not the same because Early College is on a different schedule than the other schools. That crushed me.”
Burr went back to Hamlet so the family’s vacation days would align.
His fellow teachers in Hamlet nominated him in the 2011/2012 Richmond County Teacher of the Year competition, in which he ran against 17 other teachers before finally being awarded with the honor.
“Mark Burr is an outstanding educator, and has dedicated the majority of his career to educating students in Richmond County,” said George Norris, superintendent of schools. “He is well-respected by students, parents, community members and his colleagues. We are proud of how he has represented our school system as the Teacher of the Year.”
“You know, I think every teacher should be nominated at some point,” said Burr. “It’s a lot of work, but the process really forces you to consider important issues. I learned a lot.”
Burr’s platform during the competition was teacher attrition rates; the turnover rate for newly hired teachers.
“I learned that 50 percent of new teachers quit before the fifth year,” he said. “There has to be something we can do about that so we don’t lose the ones who are coming in with lots of enthusiasm.”
Burr said he would love to see recently retired, top-notch teachers brought in to mentor newcomers.
“I say recently retired because they will still know enough about how the system works to be effective mentors,” he said.
There is a mentor program in place that asks current teachers to mentor newbies, but there’s no longer bonus pay for participating and current teachers are often pretty busy themselves.
In addition to seeing teacher turn-over rates climb, Burr said there are other challenges educators face.
“I notice that more and more kids seem to have less family support when they leave school,” he said. “It’s a whole new set of challenges when teachers have to identify the different needs that go beyond the classroom.”
The new teaching models have also presented some challenges to the teacher with a self-professed “gift of gab.”
“The new wave of teaching is collaboration; putting students in groups and presenting them with problems to solve,” he said. “I’m an old teacher. I’m just not going to totally change my teaching style to conform to someone’s new idea, and I don’t think you can look at the previous generations of teachers and tell them their way didn’t work either.”
Burr said he continues to find opportunities to tell his trademark “stories,” to keep the kids interested in the lessons “and because they need challenging vocabulary words.”
“It’s harder to teach these days,” he said. “Because of the new teaching models, I have to spend a lot of time figuring out how these kids can practically teach themselves in groups. It’s probably easier for new teachers, because it’s a model they’re used to.”
His own personal teaching method, which success has told him he shouldn’t give up, is using “tags” or stories to “sneak in” learning.
“The trick that has always worked for me is to present the material in a way that makes the kids want to know what happens next,” he said. “I’m a salesman — selling science.”
Burr said he has former students who, years later, tell him they remember what they learned in his class.
“And what’s cool is when I meet a kid’s parent, and the parent tells me about something I taught in class,” he said. “My goal is to present the information to them in a way that makes them go home and talk about some cool or weird thing they’ve learned.”
So what is this award-winning educator’s advice to fellow teachers?
“Know your material, and its peripherals,” said Burr. “When you stand in front of your class as the expert, be the expert. Your class must feel like you can answer questions that are related to what you’re talking about. If you can do that, they will be drawn in and they will trust you. We don’t have to know it all, but we need to make sure the kids believe we do.”
Since winning the Teacher of the Year Award, Burr said he’s noticed a little more attention from students, colleagues and community members.
“I feel like people expect more from me now, like the standards have been raised,” he said with a smile.
“I am excited to hear that Coach Mark Burr was chosen as the 2011/2012 Richmond County Teacher of the Year,” said former student Chad Suggs. “He is a deserving recipient of the award and is a man who has been positively influencing the lives of young people in and out of the classroom, and on and off the football field, for many years now. His methods in the classroom still resonate with me today as I am about to finish my undergraduate studies. I credit my success, after years of struggling with the path of my future, to the efforts of teachers, instructors and professors like Mr. Burr who is one of a kind. Congratulations Coach!”
— Staff Writer Kelli Easterling can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 18, or by email at email@example.com
How Teacher of the Year ‘sells science’
“A compound is two or more elements that are chemically combined. The elements used to form a compound often have very different characteristics than the compound they make. Guess what? That’s boring!” — Mark Burr
In 1966 there were three astronauts on a launch pad, in a space capsule. They were doing a mock launch; a practice run. They were wearing their full gear, and doing everything as if they were actually going to launch. Inside the capsule, the oxygen in the air is set at 81 percent. Normally people breath 21 percent oxygen — that’s the average for the air around us. But a higher concentration is pumped in to the astronauts because then they have to take less breaths. They could breath slower, and it had a calming effect. The thing about oxygen is — it’s very flammable. So, the astronauts are inside the capsule, flipping switches and doing the practice run, when the two attendants sitting outside the doors noticed the inside of the capsule glowing red with fire. By the time the crew figured out what was going on and how to help, all three astronauts had died. They later found out a short in a wire caused a spark and ignited the air because there was so much oxygen in the capsule.
Years later, in 1986, a space shuttle was on its way up, and there was a teacher aboard that flight. A tank of hydrogen fuel was attached. Hydrogen is so flammable. Anyway, 71 seconds into lift-off, a faulty rubber O-ring caused the tank to start leaking. The leak formed a stream of hydrogen that went all the way to the engine. Of course, the shuttle exploded in the sky and the entire crew was lost.
But if you take both of those very flammable elements — two hydrogens and one oxygen — and put them together, they combine to make something we use to put OUT fires. Water! Water isn’t flammable at all — but the elements that make it up are very flammable.
So you see, the elements used to make a compound often have very different characteristics than they do when they’re combined. That is not boring!