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Meet Durham Public Schools 2023-2024 Teacher of the Year Finalists Morandi Hurst and Yaritza Prendergast.

Morandi Hurst

Lakewood Montessori Middle School

Morandi Hurst moved to Durham eight years ago from South Dakota to complete a fellowship in community organizing with Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods). She was here to explore leaving the classroom after working for five years as a teacher on a Native American reservation close to her childhood ranch. As a teacher, she enjoyed interacting with her students and their parents, but she wanted more. But after 18 months outside the classroom, she realized that she had underestimated her impact in the classroom.


“I felt like the potential for change in the world lies with children more than adults. But I really missed teaching and the impact I was having in the classroom. I realized if I could combine what I had learned about community organizing…I could do that in the classroom and through the schools,” said Hurst.


Armed with that realization, she completed her fellowship and decided to get back to her original career of teaching. She attended a Durham Public Schools job fair, and never left the Lakewood Montessori table.


“I was just blown away by them as individuals– and those folks are still here– the chair of my department Sarah Walls and our counselor Meg Graham– and with the Montessori model.  I was just really impressed by the idea of there being a public school that was focused on educating the whole child, and that was really appealing to me,” she said. “It’s life-changing for students, and it’s life-changing for teachers, the adults who work with them.”


She’s taught seventh and eighth grade Humanities at Lakewood now for seven years. Working in such an environment is liberating, said Hurst.


“It is joyful,” she said.


Hurst studied history and Spanish in New York while in college with the idea of going into politics via community organizing. She knew that her own community in South Dakota needed her so she returned home, was placed in a classroom as a teacher’s aid, and moved to the reservation. The teacher she assisted became her mentor and close friend.


“She was the most incredible teacher I had ever witnessed,” said Hurst, describing her as wonderful, powerful, inspirational, lovely, supportive, compassionate, brilliant, beloved, and effective. “It hadn't even occurred to me that teachers could be like this woman.” And she knew that teaching was what she wanted to do.


Hurst decided she’d get her teaching degree through Teach for America and stayed for five years.


As a student, she was influenced greatly by her fifth grade teacher Mr. Steinberg.  He instilled in her a love of history and social studies through hands-on gamified lessons and simulations like World War II battles and making decisions that generals would make. 


“So fun. But he was also so great at building relationships and made us all feel like we were loved and cared for, in a really diverse room.”


Mr. Steinberg showed Hurst how much power teachers had by being themselves and investing in their students. She said he played dodgeball and trench with the students every day at recess, which created a bond especially for Hurst who was athletic.


Hurst intimates that there is a recipe for good teaching.


“He seemed to really enjoy what he did, and he liked kids, and really liked his content,” said Hurst.


At Lakewood, Hurst teaches within a community model where she keeps her 50 students for two years with 110-minute class periods, field trips, and co-teaching with her best friend, also a teacher.


“We get to know our kids deeply,” she said. “I feel more like an Aunt to them than their teacher because you spend so much time with them and get to know them so well.”


From the high-flyers to those who struggle, every student has a story and Hurst takes it upon herself to learn them.


One charismatic, athletic eighth grader whom she’s taught for two years came in as a transfer student to Montessori and was content to do her work and go home every day.  She said that true to being a middle schooler, this young student pushed back and faced consequences for her behavior. 


I just never felt like I was getting through to her as a growing young person,” said Hurst.


One day, while Hurst was out sick, the student ran the class seminar with a substitute present, and Hurst had an Aha! Moment. The student became her right-hand student after being given leadership opportunities. “It really awoke something in both of us.”


Rather than telling her to read a book after finishing her work, Hurst now gives her assistant-duties. She’s achieving at a much higher level now.


Hurst is now fully appreciative of the impact she can make as a teacher but is quick to say that teaching is not a solo craft. 


Her advice and words of inspiration for colleagues?


“I think that teachers and people who work in schools are the most incredible humans in our society. I firmly believe that,” said Hurst. “So if you can just surround yourself with people… come out of your shell and reach out. Because there’s inspiration all around you. I could not do this job without my co-teacher, our instructional facilitator, interventionist, our principal, and administrators. Know that there’s incredible talent and love and inspiration in the people around you. And it's just a special place, to be in a school.”


The dividends are priceless, she says. She has a former student who is pursuing her teaching license and serving as a basketball coach on the reservation. 


“I’m so proud of her for being able to give back to her community and being a solid influence on those kids. The fact that a kid I taught would want to become a teacher and coach and be a positive influence in her community is so meaningful.”


By now, it’s apparent that Hurst is committed to this career.


“I practice gratitude. I feel really grateful for being around the colleagues I’m around and the kids I’m around every day. It makes me a happier person to be a teacher than when I’m not teaching because I’ve tried it.”



Yaritza Prendergast

Neal Middle School

Eighth-grade science teacher Yaritza (pronounced ja-rrree-sa) Prendergast says she didn’t speak for the first month of her kindergarten year. Her baffled teachers recommended that her father place her in special classes, but he insisted that what they were telling him couldn’t be true. His daughter could speak, he told them. When he asked Yaritza why she wouldn’t speak in school, she pointed to her mother, who had told her never to speak with strangers lest she be kidnapped. “They are strangers,” she told her father. Her father then assured her that her teachers were not strangers and that she should communicate with them. When her teachers finally heard how well she could express herself, they were floored.


“Once I was given permission to talk, it opened up a different world for me,” Prendergast said. “Teachers saw me differently, and I was able to express myself.” She said she wasn't confident in her English, but she improved greatly by using the language.


A classically trained ballerina, Prendergast began her professional career as both a physical therapist and dance teacher. But she wasn’t fulfilled and needed a change. At the urging of a friend, she switched careers – but not her calling – and moved into academic teaching. Armed with two master’s degrees, she moved from New York two years ago and brought her gift of teaching to Durham Public Schools. Her colleagues and principal at Neal Middle School are so appreciative of her passion-filled work that they nominated her for district Teacher of the Year.


Now, three years into her calling, she credits two women influencers for building the foundation of her own influential work. Nadine Boisseau and Merit Abrahim shaped the kind of teacher she is. 


Prendergast says her niche is teaching students for whom English is a second language because she sat in that seat as a young ESL student and the daughter of immigrant parents from Panama and the Dominican Republic who spoke little or no English. At Neal, 55 percent of the students are enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Language (ESL) program.


At one time, she worked with a bilingual Chinese class of students teaching science in dual language.


“It helped me really understand how to communicate information to kids,” she said. “And I communicate just as well with the parents.”


She’s known in the community and the parents have her Google voice number (and use it regularly). “It brings me closer to the students’ parents,” she said.


Prendergast said she loves science and at one time wanted to be a botanist. She moved to North Carolina because she wanted to have her own garden and nurture her passion for seeing things grow. 


“Science is what I’m good at,” said Prendergast, who loves her teaching career.


“I think I just love what I do. I do it genuinely and the kids respond to that. They’re people first.  I think that’s where a lot of the magic comes from. You teach and talk,” she said, asserting that patience and her presence are always the order of the day. “Middle school is a very hard age … an awkward stage. They have big emotions. Let’s talk about it.”


Last year, her first in Durham, was a struggle because she was new to the students. She remembers one of her students had lost a charger block. She bought him a charger and the rest, as they say, is history. He told her a teacher had never given him anything. To this day, he texts her about every major event in his life, and will reach out to her for her help or opinion.  When he scored a four on the EOG, he told her, “only for you Ms. P,” which is what students endearingly called her.  


“My Dad says I should have gone into education in the first place,” Prendergast said.


Her mom, she said, was shocked at how happy her daughter was in the teaching and learning environment after she took her parents on a “happy tour” of the school and her classroom.


“This is where you’re shining,” her mom told her. “You’re happier here. I can see it.” 


Prendergast said the students are her magnets. “The reason I keep coming back is for the kids. The ‘why’ is the kids. The paycheck is not what keeps me coming back,” she said. However, she adds, “everyone wants to get paid what they deserve.”


Her colleagues certainly believe she deserves this recognition.


“It made me feel seen and extremely blessed,” she said of the honor of being nominated. “I work with amazing people. My co-teacher Mr. Fashoro, the after-school coach Ms. King – they are super supportive. We band together for the kids to give them a better experience.”


Prendergast said it was humbling to learn that “the school community really appreciates me. Sometimes, alone in your classroom, you don’t realize other people see the value of what you do.”


Recognition or not, Prendergast said she’s committed to her students.


“The best I can do is just to teach them to be good people. I feel that’s what we need in this world. If you don't know what an atom is, be nice to the person next to you.”


For her colleagues, particularly those who are just beginning their teaching careers, Prendergast has sage words: “Set some boundaries for yourself. Sometimes, you have to leave what's at school, at school. Your family and friends deserve you. Find something that is just you.” One thing that is just for Prendergast is listening to podcasts and music.


“Sometimes I have to sit in my car for five minutes before I start my day. That’s just my time.”