Chena Cayton has heard "no" and "you can’t" many times in her 21 years in education.

“For those of you who do not know me, I’ve been told over and over that I can’t,” she said on Thursday night. “I was told I’d never finish college. I was told I could never be a principal. I was told I needed to quit my job because the stress is bad for my multiple sclerosis.

"But I won’t quit because I love my job," she said. "I love my students.”

Cayton was named Farm Bureau’s Pitt County Schools Principal of the Year during a banquet at Rock Springs Center. This was the fourth time she has been nominated for the award and the first time she won.

“We’ve joked I’m the Susan Lucci of this,” Cayton said. “It’s very surreal (to win). There are so many people that I work with that are great principals. All of us are wonderful; everybody who was nominated today is a fantastic principal.”

Cayton has been principal at Ayden-Grifton High School for five years. She began her career more than two decades ago as a special education teacher.

“This award is not for me,” she said. “It’s for Ayden-Grifton. They deserve it. My teachers deserve it. My administration team deserves it. … They’re the ones that are in the gutters. They’re the ones that are making it count. They’re the ones I appreciate so much because Ayden-Grifton is an awesome school.

"When you walk in there, you know how awesome our school is," Cayton said. "You know we are 'Charging Toward Excellence Every Single Day.'”

That is Ayden-Grifton’s motto, and it can be seen everywhere in the school.

“I didn’t originally plan to be an administrator," Cayton said. "Dr. (George) Frazier (at J.H. Rose) took a chance on me. He went to the superintendent at that time before I actually had my degree as an assistant principal and asked for me to be his interim assistant principal.

“Dr. Frazier allowed me to do things that no one else would allow me to do," she said. "He allowed me to take those risks and allowed me to go out there and put myself out there, and that’s why I’m where I am today.”

Also nominated were Colleen Burt of Elmhurst Elementary, Sara English of Northwest Elementary, Marieka Harrison of Ayden Middle, Jennifer James of Innovation Early College at East Carolina University, Norman McDuffie of A.G. Cox Middle and Darryl Thomas Jr. of E.B. Aycock Middle.

Michael Casey of G.R. Whitfield School was named assistant principal of the year. This is his second year at the school, and his third as an administrator.

“I’ll just attribute this to all the staff at G.R. Whitfield and the students who have gravitated around me since I’ve been at Pitt County Schools,” Casey said. “Never in my imagination did I think this would happen.”

He told the selection committee that he tries to smile at everyone who enters the building.

“I try to never be too busy for anyone,” he wrote. “By showing them support, we are going to make their day better.”

Casey graduated in 2009 from State University of New York at Freedonia with a degree in music education, from Kent State University with a master’s of music in 2013 and from N.C. State University in 2018 with a master’s in school administration.

Also nominated for the award were Linda Brantley of A.G. Cox Middle, Tarrus Carr of D.H. Conley High School, Greg MacDaid of South Central High School and Lisa Robbins of H.B. Sugg Elementary.

The winners receive prizes from Pitt County Farm Bureau, the Pitt County Education Foundation, Pitt County Principal and Assistant Principal Association, Robinson and Associates, the ECU Athletics ticket office and more.