School doors swung open on Monday as students across Orange County streamed into the building to start off a new school year.

Teachers stood outside their doors, as prepared as they could be, waiting to greet their students for the first day of a year of lessons they’ve been planning. 

Last Wednesday, August 22, these teachers from across the Orange County School district took a break from lesson planning and organizing their classrooms to kick off the school year in a traditional fashion – a dance off. Or maybe a sing-off – or a contest of creativity. 

However one classified the event, teachers rolled into the Cedar Ridge auditorium decked out in ‘80s gear, some crews strutted in wearing sunglasses, mascots ran through the doors, one teacher wore a box painted like a Rubik’s Cube, and all wore matching shirts for their respective schools.

Each school took a turn to compete in the creativity and spirit contest, showing their passion for their school and the necessity of not taking oneself too seriously in teaching.

Many changed the lyrics to popular songs to match their school motos, some did school cheers, and Orange High School summoned their marching band drumline to ring in the new year. 

Ultimately, the school board voted on the winner – or winners. It was a three-way tie between Hillsborough Elementary, Gravelly Hill Middle School, and Efland-Cheeks Global Elementary. 

Gravelly Hill sang their own rendition of “We are the World,” ending with the lyrics, “It’s true we make a better day at Gravelly.” Hillsborough Elementary changed the lyrics to “Summer Lovin’” from “Grease” and Efland-Cheeks did their own version of “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. 

The day began with a bang and the cheering continued as the 2018-19 OCS Teacher of the Year Luis Rios took the stage to share his story and why he became a teacher. 

Rios, who is entering his fifth year teaching at New Hope, was previously an ESL teacher, but will transition into the dual language program this year, teaching kindergarten. 

“I envision a world that is compassionate, joyful, abundant,” he began. “I stand for every family and child in our district to get that they matter, and how do we do that? By giving them the resources and support that they need to succeed.” 

These resources and support directly correlated with his call for teachers to invest in their students’ stories. He spoke about vision, the need for dream with drive, pointing to his parents’ vision for him to get a proper education and college degree. 

In November 1997, at the age of 5, Rios, his brother, and his parents, came to America from their home country, La Virginia, Risaralda in Columbia. 

He entered kindergarten in New Jersey, where he had a bilingual Cuban teacher. Soon after, his family made the move to Gastonia, North Carolina, as there were textile factories and work available for his parents. 

“Imagine putting your children in a car, meeting your partner at a gas station, passing your children off to your partner, because there’s no time to share a home,” Rios shared. “One’s doing the day shift, one’s doing the night shift. Who was going to help me with my homework? 

“My parents, they only spoke Spanish to me, because they valued that,” he continued. “They understood the importance of maintaining our culture through our language.” 

When Rios was a sophomore in high school, he and his mother became naturalized citizens. A few years later, he graduated from UNC Chapel Hill – the first in his family to do so. 

He urged teachers to look beyond the exterior of a student and see the sometimes “heartbreaking” life they endure outside of the classroom. 

“In every one of my students’ fathers, I see my own father,” Rios said. “The giving, caring, compassionate man, exhausted by the work that he does and willing to step far outside his comfort zone so he can give his family the best. 

“In every mother, I see my own mother,” he continued. “I see the powerful, courageous, loving woman, who sets her dreams aside because she’s too busy providing for her family.” 

He petitioned to the room full of eager teachers: “Get to know your families’ and students’ stories. Make an effort.” 

Rios shared his full self in hopes that his vulnerability would lead to deeper relationships and understanding throughout Orange County Schools: “I want you to know who I am as a human being. I am a gay, bilingual Latino-American.” 

Applause echoed throughout the auditorium. 

“It matters that you have chosen to commit another year to this profession,” he said. “Go in with compassion. Our parents, our families, they don’t need your pity. They don’t need my pity. They need compassion – love in action.” 

Rios then proceeded to invite all Teacher of the Year nominees on stage, pointing to each of them as an example of greatness that other teachers could look to for guidance and inspiration.