As another school day ended late Monday afternoon, Kelly Arnold returned to her car at Orange High School to find that her students had been paying close attention to the local Twitter feeds over the weekend.
Her parking space had been decorated in chalk. Space 183 read “OCS Teacher of the Year.”
Arnold earned the honor last week. Next month, she will complete her fifth year at Orange as an English teacher.
“I really think what I do right now, with kids from 14-18 years old, is the most critical juncture in their lives,” Arnold said. “They are really coming into their own as adults. They’re learning how to think for themselves. They’re figuring out what to do next. And to help shelter them through that is a privilege.”
Arnold has been teaching 17 years. She taught six years in Guilford County, four years in Caldwell County and two in South Korea.
She has aimed at teaching her whole life. She attended UNC Greensboro on a North Carolina Teaching Fellow because her family didn’t have the money to send Arnold and her younger sisters to college.
“It was very important that I figure out some way to fund my college,” Arnold said. “So I thought my plan was I would do teaching fellow, I’ll teach for four years in high school. Then I’ll go to graduate school and go to college and become an English professor.”
She followed that plan to completion — almost. After graduating from UNC Greensboro in 2002, she taught for two years and started taking courses for her Master’s Degree at night. But she started loving the high school classrooms of Ben L. Smith High School in Greensboro, where she had started out teaching.
“I loved working with teenagers,” Arnold said. “The professorship is gone for good. I look at my friends who teach college and it’s not the life I want anymore.”
After 10 years in high school, Arnold and her husband Ric started looking for a break. They thought it would be unique to live abroad, so they moved to Busan, South Korea to teach at a private school for two years.
“We taught everything from the lowest level kids who didn’t know the alphabet or any English,” Arnold said. “We also taught kids who wrote as well as the average American 10th grader and who were preparing to go to college in the U.S. or Canada.”
While Arnold taught her students, she also had to educate herself about a new language and a new culture. She still speaks only functional Korean, enough to tell students to please be quiet, sit down and ask for directions.
“Korean is one of the most difficult languages to learn in the world,” Arnold said.
The southern kindness she learned growing up in Carteret County drew snickers from her foreign students.
“Growing up in the South politeness is super important,” Arnold said. “You learn to say please. I’m always super polite with my kids. I always try to be courteous. But when you do that in Korea, the kids laugh at you because you’re not supposed to speak to a child that way. That’s the language used with elderly people over there.”
Arnold was quick to understand how age conscious Korea was.
“Koreans would always ask you how old your are,” Arnold said. “But it wasn’t a rude question. They were trying to put you in the hierarchy of respect and accord. If you go out to eat, there are rules about who pours the drinks for the table. If you’re the youngest person at the table, you have to pour the drinks and serve the oldest person first. You work in order of age.”
After leaving Korea, Kelly and Ric started looking for somewhere in North Carolina that was middle ground. While she’s from the coast, Ric hails from Lenoir, near the mountains in Boone. That’s how they decided on interviewing somewhere in central North Carolina.
“We agreed that whoever found a job first, the other would get a job close by,” Arnold said.
Kelly got the job first in 2014. Ric worked at Graham High School for a year before a job opened up at Orange. Now, he works in the English department with his wife.
“I really love Orange County,” Arnold said. “I feel like it’s a really great system. I love teaching in a small system. I think there’s an advantage to being somewhere where the people know who you are. You’re tracking a small population and you’re in a community school. I love that there’s so much history here.”
Arnold’s tutelage isn’t something forgotten by her students once they turn the tassels at graduation every June. Next month, one of her first students from Smith High will receive her doctorate from the University of Miami. Arnold was invited to fly down for the ceremony.
She keeps in touch with many of her former students. Some have grown to be doctors, business owners and journalists. Every weeknight, she can tune into WFMY-TV and watch another former student, Patrick Wright, anchor the evening news.
“I follow him on Twitter and watch what he posts,” Arnold said. “I don’t feel the need to correct him about his grammar. Once they leave the school, that relationship transitions.”
Arnold has taken on more challenges away from the classroom. She has three children: 28-year-old Gini, 28-year-old Ricky and 24-year-old Carrie.
Three years ago, Kelly and Ric decided to start over again and adopt a foster child.
Their daughter, two-and-a-half year old Cooper, was placed with them when she was ten weeks old.
“We knew pretty quickly after she was placed with us that if she came up for adoption, we would want to adopt her,” Arnold said. “Our family is complete in a different way now. There are kids who come from wonderful homes. There are others who really need help.”
As she winds down this academic year with a lofty award from the school system, Arnold hasn’t forgotten about her teaching community.
“This county has hundreds of exceptional teachers,” Arnold said. “There’s a whole network of incredible educators in this county that hold children up and prepare children and take care of their kids. I’m just one example. I work with amazing people. I think that’s one of Orange County’s most compelling assets.”