By Jesse Wood
Jan. 12, 2015. The awards keep coming Mary Kent Whitaker’s way. Whitaker teaches English at Watauga High School and was the teacher involved in the book challenge over “The House of the Spirits,” an acclaimed novel by Isabel Allende, in late 2013 and early 2014.
Whitaker’s latest award is the ACLU-NC Award. Whitaker will be honored along with several other “civil liberties heroes” at the ACLU-NC’s 2015 Frank Porter Graham Awards Dinner in Chapel Hill on Saturday, Feb. 28.
The ACLU-NC Award is handed out to an individual with “deep commitment to preserving and defending civil liberties in North Carolina,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
Whitaker was called a “courageous English teacher … defending the freedom to read” by the ACLU-NC in an announcement of the upcoming awards ceremony:
“The novel was abruptly removed from Watauga classrooms after a parent submitted an official book challenge. Whitaker defended the book to school and district committees, both of which voted unanimously to keep the book. Following parent appeals, Whitaker continued to defend her Students’ Right to Read, as she led students, parents, and community members in the fight for Academic Freedom. The local school board ultimately voted 3-2 to fully retain the book after Whitaker’s final compelling presentation at the county courthouse.”
This latest award is among several that Whitaker, who has taught students for 38 years, has won recently.
In December, the N.C. English Teachers Association chose Whitaker as its “Outstanding Teacher in North Carolina” for 2014-15. N.C. English Teachers Association chose Whitaker after surveying teachers and administrators across the state. When this award was announced, WHS Principal Marshall Gasperson praised Whitaker as a “a truly outstanding teacher who has earned the respect of everyone at the high school and across our school system. Her statewide recognition is well deserved and we congratulate her on this latest honor.”
Whitaker described the award as “humbling” in early December.
“We have so many outstanding English teachers in North Carolina who deserve this recognition, especially right here at Watauga High School and throughout our Watauga County Schools,” Whitaker said at the time.
In October, the National Coalition Against Censorship named Whitaker as one of its 40 top defenders of free speech for 2014, which happened to be the 40-year anniversary of the organization. In announcing the honor, the NCAC website published a photo of 18 of Whitaker’s students holding up the book, which is listed as recommended literature for Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate programs.
In late February a day before the Watauga County Board of Education voted to retain “The House of the Spirits” in the curriculum, her fellow teachers and colleagues chose Whitaker as one of the Teachers of the Year in Watauga County Schools. While one teacher from each of the schools in in the district received the award, Whitaker eventually went on to be named the overall Teacher of the Year in the school system two months later in May 2014.
When Whitaker was surprised with an award plaque, a check and some balloons in her classroom that day, Whitaker addressed her students, saying “It’s an honor and it’s an honor for you. I hope you feel that too. I wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for you guys.”
Sometimes people involved in high-profile events such as this book challenge are flooded with awards. Whitaker, however, was recognized as Watauga County Schools top teacher years before the controversy surrounding “The House of the Spirits” made headlines across the state and beyond.
For the 2010-11 school year, Whitaker was named the Teacher of the Year for the local school system. With the similar honor handed down last May, Whitaker became the only two-time winner of the award in the history of Watauga County Schools.
When she received the award that year, former WHS Principal Michael Wyant talked about her teaching approach being “very student-centered” and how immediately evident it is upon observing her that learning is a fun experience in her classroom.
Upon receiving the award four years ago, Whitaker was quoted in High Country Press as saying, “For me, teaching and living and learning are so intertwined that it is sometimes difficult to see where one stops and another begins.”
Whitaker has taught students for nearly 40 years and is currently in her 12th year at Watauga High School. She received her bachelor’s degree at Columbia College and master’s degree from Appalachian State. She has a National Board Certification, which is the highest professional credential for a teacher.