The University of Mount Olive awarded the 2021 Dr. Thomas R. Morris Award for Excellence in Teaching to two professors. Tying for the title this year were Assistant Dean of Education Dr. Amanda Bullard-Maxwell and Professor of Mathematics Dr. Brenda Cates. Bullard-Maxwell and Cates were nominated by students and then selected by a faculty committee.
Bullard-Maxwell began working at UMO as an adjunct professor in the Division of Education in 2017. She became a full time Assistant Professor in January 2018 and in July of that year was named Chair of the Division of Education. She assumed the role of Assistant Dean of Education in August 2019. Prior to joining UMO, Dr. Bullard-Maxwell served various roles in education including Elementary teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Director of Professional Development and Beginning Teacher Support, and Director of Elementary Education. She retired from NC public education in 2016, after 30 years of service.
Bullard-Maxwell uses her experiences as a career teacher and public school administrator to excite students about their futures and the potential they have to make a lasting impact on the lives of children. Her students are her biggest inspiration, but she also has a scripture that keeps her grounded in her work, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” Colossians 3:23.”
Upon receiving the Morris Teaching Award, Bullard-Maxwell said, “Words cannot express my gratitude in receiving this honor, especially in consideration that my students nominated me. They are why I am here. To have an active role in the preparation of the next generation of educators and to be recognized for my contributions has been the high point of a lifelong career in education.”
Bullard-Maxwell believes in the value of building relationships with students. “It is important to get to know them personally and to be responsive to their needs,” she said. “It is true that students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” She works hard to inspire future educators, often telling her students, “Teaching is the hardest job you will ever have, but also the most rewarding!” She hopes her students think of her as, “their biggest cheerleader.” “I hope that the enthusiasm I have for teaching is truly contagious and that somehow I have stoked their passion and commitment to the profession,” she said.
If Bullard-Maxwell could choose one word to describe her teaching style, it would be “Relevant,” she said. “When I teach, I provide my students opportunities to interact with the
content whether it be independently or in collaborative groups. I work to provide real-life examples from my experiences as an educator to support application of content.”
Born and raised in Sanford, NC, Bullard-Maxwell currently resides in Dudley with her husband, Neil. In her spare time, she enjoys horseback riding, raising miniature donkeys, offshore fishing, and running.
Co-award winner Dr. Brenda Cates is widely known on the UMO campus as the professor who loves teaching math. “I hope my enthusiasm rubs off on the classes I teach,” she said. “I don’t take myself too seriously and I want students to feel comfortable in my class – that they can ask questions without feeling embarrassed. I’m also open and honest with my students so they clearly understand my expectations.” Beyond those things, Cates’ students appreciate her for her caring attitude. “I care deeply about broadening their understanding of mathematical concepts, but I also care about them – and building relationships that go beyond the classroom. As the years go by, students will forget much of the content they learned in my classes, but I hope they remember having a positive experience, and leaving my class with a sense of accomplishment.”
Cates began working at Mount Olive College in 1982 when it was still a junior college. She serves as Professor of Mathematics; Chair of the Department of Physical and Mathematical Sciences; NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative; UMO Honors Program Director, and the Official Scorekeeper for UMO basketball games. At one time, she was even the head women’s tennis coach. The ability to wear many hats is one of the things that Cates enjoys most about working at UMO. She also enjoys the family atmosphere that is centered in faith. “I like the family environment, including the students, faculty, staff, and administrators,” she said. “We may not always agree, but I’ve seen, over and over again, our campus community come together to celebrate our achievements and milestones, and also come together to mourn our losses.”
Cates remembers a time of loss in her own life when her UMO family rallied around her for comfort and support. “In May 2017, while I was in China with a group of UMO Honors students, my mother passed away,” Cates recalled. “When I relayed the news to our group, the students immediately circled around me in the lobby of the hotel, and Dr. Alan Lamm led us all in prayer. It was a beautiful moment of faith that gave me an immeasurable amount of comfort. That’s what working at an institution that places importance on faith means to me – the acceptance to express one’s faith anywhere, anytime, in all aspects of our lives.”
Family is important to Cates, and the lessons she learned early in life still play a vital role in how she inspires her students today. Growing up, her parents continually stressed the importance of service and education. “My dad would repeatedly say, ‘Your education is the one thing that no one can ever take away from you.’ I truly believe in the transformative power of education, and strive to help my students see the value in learning and the importance of completing their degrees.”
As for the advice she would give to new educators, Cates shared, “Recognize that being a content area expert is not enough. You have to love teaching as much as you love your discipline, and you have to spend time developing the skills and practices that will enable you to
design effective instruction. It’s also important to build relationships with students, and developing effective communication strategies is key.”
Cates, a Duplin County native, was raised in Chinquapin and lived in the Warsaw/Kenansville area. She and her husband, Tim, moved to Mount Olive in 2019. Cates has two adult children, Daniel Cates and Samantha Pexa.
Benefactor of the Morris Award is the late Dr. Thomas R. Morris, a long-time friend and generous supporter of the University of Mount Olive. Dr. Morris was a native of the Nahunta area of Wayne County where he and his family were active members of Union Grove OFWB Church. With the vision of an education, he worked his way through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Upon graduation from medical school, he was an optometrist and civic leader in Goldsboro until his retirement. Dr. Morris passed away earlier this year.