LUCI WELDON/The Warren Record

Vaughan Elementary School Principal Renee Mizelle presents a lunch, complete with dessert, to first-grade teacher assistant Carolyn Richardson.


Vaughan Elementary School Principal Renee Mizelle added a new twist to a longstanding tradition on May 6 as she held a drive-through Educational Personnel Appreciation Luncheon in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week.

For at least 25 years, the school has conducted a special luncheon during Teacher Appreciation Week, observed during the first full week of May. The event provided a time for teachers to relax for a couple of hours and enjoy a catered meal, presentations such as a poem and school accomplishments, and a time of fellowship with their peers. Teachers had a chance to win door prizes and took home flowers which graced their tables as mementos.

This year, Mizelle began to purchase small items such as candles, soaps and lotions for door prizes, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed the educational world for teachers, principals and other school staff everywhere. Schools closed and distance learning became the norm. Would 2020 be the only year in recent history with no Teacher Appreciation Week Luncheon?

Mizelle decided to adapt the luncheon from a sit-down meal to a drive-through event honoring all of the school’s educational personnel. 

“I couldn’t let the Teacher Appreciation Luncheon go this year,” she said. “I can’t stop a great tradition.”

Because the event fell on National School Nurse Day, Mizelle felt that it provided a perfect opportunity to recognize school nurse Mia Taylor-Terry.

Transitioning from a sit-down meal to a drive-through luncheon took about two weeks of planning. A caterer prepared barbecued beef and cheesy potatoes. Mizelle cooked baked chicken, string beans, rolls, coconut pie and devil’s food cake.

She had no trouble finding plastic cutlery in local grocery stores to accompany the take-out containers she would use for the food, but locating the containers themselves was a bit of a challenge. Mizelle purchased all she could find — which amounted to 20 — at the grocers’, and the caterer provided 20 more.

She had 40 plain containers, but nothing ordinary would do. Mizelle designed three special messages to honor her educators to affix to the top of each container. One highlighted the multiple roles that a teacher fulfills each day. A second pictured a globe with the words, “The World’s Coolest Teacher.” The third featured the words, “Teachers are angels in disguise.”

With preparations complete, Mizelle and Administrative Assistant Virginia Davis set up a table outside the school building on luncheon day last week and waited for the educators to arrive. 

One by one they came, sometimes accompanied by family members. Their faces broke into wide smiles as they saw their principal. Being on the school campus, if only for just a few minutes, made daily life seem a little more normal.

Vaughan’s teachers, like others in the Warren County school district, had to adjust to teaching and communicating with their students online and via phone apps instead of in person. As they picked up their luncheon meals, several educators agreed that they are grateful for technology, but look forward to when Gov. Roy Cooper declares that it is safe for schools to open their doors once again.

Exceptional Children teacher Geraldine Richardson missed seeing her students’ faces.

“When they learn something new, the lighbulb lights up, and you know you’ve got them,” she said.

EC teacher assistant Robbin Lynch has missed the interaction with her students and co-workers, saying “humans were made to interact.”

“You don’t know how much you miss the day-to-day contact until you are at home,” she said.

Schools across North Carolina have been closed since mid-March due to the novel coronavirus, and teachers like Lynch have had to juggle the feeling that safety precautions were necessary with a longing to see their students, especially fifth-graders who are about to move to the middle grades.     

“When we left here in March, we didn’t think that we wouldn’t see our babies again,” she said.

Second-grade teacher Kim Vincent also misses her students, saying that virtual learning is not the same as having boys and girls in her regular classroom.

EC teacher Jenny Leach is used to showing her love for her students by hugging them. She continues to teach online, but can’t wait to return to teaching in the classroom.

“I am very much looking forward to getting back, “ Leach said. “I miss seeing (students’) faces. I miss reading to them, and I miss laughing with them.”

Vaughan media coordinator Trina Paynter has been busy working on the school website, preparing notifications and updating the school newsletter, all from home. She also looks forward to returning to school.

“I miss the kids and talking with them about what they are reading,” Paynter said. “I miss school so much.”

First-grade teacher assistant Carolyn Richardson misses interacting with students, teachers and parents in person on a regular basis. Virtual teaching has become a way of life, and she keeps in touch with parents to make sure that student learning is going well. However, she would rather be in the classroom.

“I can’t wait to get back and see my students,” she said.

As a day tutor, Sallye Duncan doesn’t participate in online teaching activities. She attends virtual staff meetings, but misses working in person with students, parents and her colleagues.

First-grade teacher Amber Mills uses an app to connect with her students so that they can read stories together. She put the situation of teaching during this time of COVID-19 in perspective, noting that teachers might talk about how their students get on their nerves sometimes, but there is nothing she would rather be doing than teaching in a classroom.

“I would trade it all to be able to come back,” Mills said.

A devotion to students. A longing to return to the classroom and work with boys and girls in person every day, no matter what. For Mizelle, this devotion proves why continuing the Teacher Appreciation Week Luncheon tradition this year was important, and why she gave a personal message to all the educators as they picked up their food.

“I (told) each teacher how much I appreciate them for all they do for the school and students,” she said. “Their hard work doesn’t go unnoticed.”