She's an author, world traveler and scholar.
But you won't find her lecturing students at a prestigious university, working for a top corporation or even resting on her laurels.
The only place to find Mary Jane Morris is at her dream job: teaching seventh and eighth graders how to read and think big at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City. On Tuesday, Morris added another impressive honor to her already lengthy list: Utah 2010 Teacher of the Year.
State Superintendent Larry Shumway surprised Morris, who teaches reading and Achievement Via Individual Determination (AVID) classes meant to help prepare students for college, with the award at a school assembly Tuesday. Morris, 58, won the award for her success in expanding her school's AVID program, integrating culture into her lessons, and for her work as a mentor to other educators, among other things. As part of the award, Morris will receive $10,000 and an interactive white board for her classroom. She will also travel to Washington, D.C., in the spring with other state teachers of the year, where they'll meet with the president.
"Many years ago I had a principal and her phrase was 'When you do good things, good things happen to you,'" Morris said after she was called on stage. "This is the best that's ever happened to me."
Students cheered and called out, "We love you Ms. Morris!" as she took the microphone.
Morris' students said they weren't surprised to hear that their teacher, whose favorite word in class is "rigor," won such an honor. Morris has even published a book about creating successful students.
"She treats students like they're her own kids," said eighth-grade AVID student Evelyn Salazar. "She really cares."
"She pushes us to do better work," said Mosiah Langi, also an eighth-grade AVID student.
A handful of students walked on stage to put large beaded necklaces around Morris' neck, a Polynesian tradition meant to congratulate her.
Many of those who nominated Morris for the honor praised the way she integrates culture into her lessons at the school, which is home to students from about 30 countries who speak about 28 languages. For example, when she teaches Esperanza Rising , a novel about a Mexican girl who immigrates to California, Morris also teaches students about Mexican dancing, music and cuisine. Morris also incorporates the cultures of Japan and Malaysia into her classes. As a Fulbright-Hays Scholar, Morris studied in Malaysia, and through the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program, she studied in Japan.
Also, about four years ago, Morris and another educator started a club for students called Kids for Community Action Now, after some of Morris' Latino students, while reading Esperanza Rising , asked her why people in Salt Lake City hate Latinos so much. Student members of the club set a goal of changing community perception about children of immigrants. As part of the club, students wrote a petition and collected about 600 signatures of people dedicated to celebrating the diversity of their school and neighborhood. Students also gave out about 500 bumper stickers which said "Celebrate Diversity" in English, Spanish and Tongan.
"We are a multicultural society at Northwest, and my role as a teacher is to recognize and celebrate those cultures," Morris said. "It helps [students] feel valued, that they are an important part of our culture."
Northwest Principal Rod Goode also praised Morris for helping to double the size of the school's AVID program, which reaches out to kids who have the potential to go to college but might face challenges in getting there.
Morris said she feels lucky to teach AVID students, noting that she could have been one of them when she was in school.
But Morris was always determined to become a teacher. At the age of 7, she began lining up her dolls in front of a blackboard to teach them what she had learned at school.
Morris has been teaching for 33 years, but she loves it as much as she did when she was 7. She said she has no plans to retire any time soon though she may use her award money to take a vacation in Ireland.
"Helping other people discover who they are, that is what drew me to teaching and has kept me teaching," Morris said. "I love what I do."
Mary Jane Morris, a reading and AVID teacher at Northwest Middle School, has been named Utah's 2010 Teacher of the Year. Three finalists will also get $3,000 each:
Mark W. Christiansen, » a technology education teacher at Albert R. Lyman Middle School in Blanding.
Jill Hislop Gibson » a kindergarten teacher at Polk Elementary School in Ogden.
Richard Hoonakker » a biology teacher at West Jordan High School.