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Kathleen Sears talking to a student in a classroom

Award Affirms Great Teaching

Each year, one UNC faculty member is honored for their excellence in teaching, thanks to the generosity of donors Kathleen Sears ’76 and Jim Helgoth.

Kathleen Sears and Jim Helgoth have recognized and rewarded UNC's outstanding faculty through their generous support.

Each year, one UNC faculty member is honored for their excellence in teaching, thanks to the generosity of donors Kathleen Sears ’76 and Jim Helgoth. The couple established the Sears Helgoth Distinguished Teaching Award, administered by the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences.

Sears, who earned her degree in Elementary Education at UNC, says that as a student, she benefited from outstanding teachers who taught future educators how to teach well.

“At UNC, the professors were modeling what a good teacher looks and sounds like. It is an amazing level of educational and pedagogical technique,” she says.

It’s that high quality of teaching that Sears and Helgoth hope to reward and encourage faculty and to provide access and the opportunity for students to learn from outstanding educators.

The couple met as sophomores at Boulder High School. Sears intended to go to University of Colorado, where her father was on faculty, to study education, while Helgoth knew he wanted to focus on business at CU.

But when CU’s School of Education lost its accreditation just as she was preparing for college, Sears’ plans changed.

“I knew at the time that UNC was the best place to go for teacher training. But there was this guy here who I was thinking I wanted to be around,” she says, with a nod to Helgoth. “So, I said, ‘OK, let's go up to UNC.’ And I'm really, really glad I did. It was the best decision.”

Helgoth stayed at CU, earning his degree in accounting before going to work for a small firm in Denver. Three years later, he joined Elward Systems, Inc., a construction firm, as their accountant then president, and stayed with the company for 40 years, retiring in 2021. Sears graduated from UNC a year early, with a year of student teaching in Boulder, then taught at Louisville  Middle School for  five years.

During that time, she gained a deep appreciation for the work teachers do and the challenges they face. A leave of absence ended up opening an unexpected path for her: a friend connected her with the news director at KUNC, which led to eight years in radio working as a producer and an on-air host.

Sears earned a master’s in broadcast journalism at CU, then took a position working on audio and video materials with CareerTrack, a corporate business training company in Boulder. When the company was sold, she started her own business, which she held until her retirement in 2007.

She and Helgoth had not forgotten her time at UNC, and they remained connected to the university, with nieces and nephews who have attended the university. Kathleen also has served on the UNC Foundation Board of Directors since 2021.

In 2014 they began to consider their philanthropic opportunities. They wanted to establish a gift that would recognize great teaching — something Kathleen still remembered from her time as a student — and set up an endowment to create the Sears Helgoth Distinguished Teaching award. Each year they have the opportunity to meet with the recipient and sit in on one of the recipient’s classes.

“We really wanted to meet the awardees. We wanted to see them in action. We wanted to see their teaching techniques,” she says. “We wanted to see it for ourselves. And there hasn't been one awardee who has been disappointing. They've all been stellar, and Dr. Youngs was no exception.”

Suzette Youngs, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Education was the 2022 Sears Helgoth awardee. Youngs has 30 years of teaching experience, 11 in the elementary classroom and 19 in higher education, 13 of which have been spent at UNC. At UNC, she has focused on undergraduate and graduate courses in elementary literacy education and diverse children's literature. She chose UNC because of its focus on and reputation for creating effective, engaging and inclusive teachers, and building communities of learners and teachers is at the heart of her work.

It was Youngs’ Survey of Culturally Diverse Literature for Children and Young Adults class that Jim and Kathleen had an opportunity to sit in on.

“She had the students engaged immediately. It's so good, and it's so affirming that we're doing the right thing.

We observed, but were also allowed to ask questions and participate. I think Dr. Youngs had five different tables. We kind of moved around to different tables and it's just fascinating,” she says.

“Being in their classes makes you so hopeful for the future. They've all got these really good groups of students. You can tell they're going to be true educators.”

For Youngs, receiving the award – and the process of submitting materials – was validating and gave her an opportunity to reflect on successes and challenges over the years. It also gave the students and parents she’s worked with a chance to share their memories.

“Some students wrote letters of support for the award, and those letters were life-altering for me,” she says.

And, when the award was posted on Facebook, she reconnected with many students and teachers she’s worked with who shared stories and congratulations with her.

“It was just validating to know that over the years you have this kind of an influence on people when you think, ‘I haven't made a difference at all,’” Youngs said. “It came at a time where it helped me to say, ‘OK, I can keep going.’” 

And it was an experience that she won’t forget.  

“I always tell my students, ‘You have to make a happy file. The macaroni necklace goes in there. The cards that say, ‘I love you,’ you have to put those in there. Because there are going to be dark days of teaching, and you open that file, and you're like, ‘This is why I did it.’ So, getting this award was like the ultimate happy file.” 

Sears and Helgoth say that some awardees have said that the award has kept them going, as well, during the hard times that come with teaching.  

“This is a super hard job,” Sears says, “and they need all the support they can get. I'm grateful that we're able to do this for them."

– written by Debbie Moors

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