South Point High School English teacher Bobbie Cavnar describes teaching as 25 percent preparation and 75 percent pure theater. Lately, the UNC Charlotte alumnus has taken his place on the national stage, sharing his views of teaching, the humanities, the arts and issues confronting the nation’s schools.
Cavnar, who earned his master’s degree in English at UNC Charlotte in 2011, was named the nation’s top educator for 2018, as selected by the National Education Association (NEA) Foundation. Officially called the “2018 NEA Member Benefits for Teaching Excellence Award,” this prestigious recognition has given him an opportunity to serve as an advocate for students and teachers and to showcase the power of public education.
“Many of our great artists, thinkers, and inventors were born into poverty and were given the opportunity to let their genius show,” Cavnar says. “That’s how a public education equalizes life.”
He has embraced this opportunity by giving talks, serving on committees and boards working to improve education, participating in media interviews, and through his website and blog.
Meanwhile, he continues to teach in South Point High School in the Gaston County community of Belmont, inspiring and challenging his students. While some winners of statewide and national awards choose to move into different roles, Cavnar says nothing has tempted him to leave the classroom.
Cavnar’s classroom resembles a Victorian setting. He has brought in elements designed to inspire his students as they study English literature and composition. The classroom and other settings he uses while teaching create a world for writers. Cavnar brings to life the works of British writers including Shakespeare, Shelley, Byron and Dickens.
Cavnar nurtured his knowledge and enthusiasm for literature and the humanities as a student in his classes at UNC Charlotte.
“I remember Bobbie very well,” English Department Chair Mark West says. “He took a course with me that focused on children’s literature award winners. That was a year in which we researched The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, which won the Newbery Medal.”
Cavnar drew upon his deep knowledge of literature – particularly British literature – to reflect upon the themes in Gaiman’s contemporary book and to explore how they connected with themes in The Jungle Book, a collection of stories published by Engish author Rudyard Kipling in 1894.
“Bobbie wrote this fantastic paper in which he drew the connections between the two books,” West says. “He understood Kipling so well that he could make really complex connections, not just surface observations.”
That ability translates to Cavnar’s classroom, as he helps students analyze difficult texts and construct meaning from what they are reading and researching.
“He seems to be able to make a classic work of literature, especially British works, relevant to today’s students,” West says. “Students see what they are studying as interesting and relatable to their own lives and experiences.”
Cavnar has stayed connected to the UNC Charlotte English Department, the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and the university. He was a keynote speaker this spring at a Charlotte Teachers Institute event for teachers and has participated in alumni panels hosted by faculty in the English Department. He also has been involved with the University Writing Project.
Cavnar has received awards including the North Carolina Teacher of the Year for 2016-2017, the 2016 Southwest Region Teacher of the Year, 2015 Wells Fargo Educator of the Year for Gaston County Schools, 2014 South Point High School Teacher of the Year, and South Point High School Most Influential Educator, voted on by students, for 2013, 2011, 2009, 2006 and 2004.
In the most recent recognition, Cavnar was one of five national finalists who had received Horace Mann awards for teaching excellence, which came with a $10,000 prize. In winning the NEA’s top award, Cavnar received an additional $25,000.
Images and videos courtesy of The Gaston Gazette, Gaston County Schools and the NEA | Portions of this story appeared in a previous article about Cavnar, when he was selected for the state award.