Erik Mortensen didn’t take the traditional route to become a teacher. 

He’d been a mechanic most of his life, but when the auto tech teaching job opened at Watauga High School, he thought he’d give it a shot. 

He’s been in the role for five and a half years now and says he had to find his own way in the classroom. Since he didn’t have the experience of going to school for teaching, he drew on the experience he did have: working.

“And so I just started teaching the kids in the way that I would if I had an employee, or I would want to be treated as an employee," Mortensen said. "I treat them as adults. I treat them with respect. And, you know, to some extent, as much as it's allowed, I treat them as equals.”

And that’s worked for him. Earlier this year, Mortensen was named the teacher of the year for the district, becoming the first career and technical education teacher to earn that recognition in Watauga. 

Now, as the Northwest Regional teacher of the year, he’s in the mix for the state-level title. 

He says it’s an honor to have made it this far, but that’s not why he does the job. He says teaching is an opportunity to change the world. 

"That sounds grandiose, but it's not. What it is, is it's an opportunity to improve the lives of the students that come through my classroom," Mortensen said. "A lot of the kids that come through here, they're taking CTE classes, maybe they haven't found the greatest success in their core classes. Maybe they're not great at English, maybe they're not great at science. But they come down here and some of these kids do really well working with their hands.”

Mortensen said it’s not uncommon for him to go to auto shops in Boone and run into former students who are making a living, starting their families, and doing well. 

“And they're thankful, and they're happy, and they're successful. And it makes me feel like I have changed the world," Mortensen said. "I have made a positive influence on the life of these kids. And that's kind of a ripple effect that will carry on for a good long while I hope.”

Mortensen, and the other regional finalists, will go through a series of interviews and screening activities before the North Carolina Teacher of the Year is chosen.

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

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