Awards honor top Utah educators

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Michael Thompson's English classroom looks pretty typical -- in some ways.

A poster of Shakespeare clings to a wall, along with definitions of writing devices. On a recent day, Thompson reviewed comma usage with nearly 30 of his Fairfield Junior High ninth-graders.

But in other ways, his classroom is a study in education innovation. He went over comma usage with an Interwrite pad, a sort of handheld computer that allows him to project his computer screen onto a screen at the front of the room. He recently asked his students to write poetry inspired by a website-generated "word cloud." And his honors class meets only in cyberspace.

"It just seems to me this is the world that kids live in," said Thompson, who holds a master's degree in instructional technology. "We can no longer educate kids for the world as it was 50 years ago."

Thompson's ability to innovate in the classroom is just one reason he won a Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education this year. Each year, 10 Utah teachers, administrators and school volunteers win the $10,000 awards. This year's roster of winners, like Thompson, includes a number of educators who have led the way into a new era for schools in Utah and nationwide.

Sylvia Mathis, another winner and a teacher for gifted students in the Salt Lake City School District, has developed several unique programs, including a Personal Exploration Guidebook, which is now used in a number of schools. The guide walks students through an intensive project in which they learn about a topic through research and expert interviews. Mathis, who has been teaching for about 30 years, wanted students to learn how to independently explore a subject in-depth.

"I just think we live in such an interesting world, and there's just so much out there to learn and know, and certainly they're not going to learn everything through textbooks," Mathis said.

And when award winner Lars Johnson, a physics and chemistry teacher at Gunnison Valley High, saw the students at his school changing around him, he responded to their needs. When Johnson started teaching at Gunnison 14 years ago, he said the school had only a few Latino students. Now, about 10 percent of Gunnison's students are Latino.

Johnson noticed that not many of the Latino students were engaged in school. So about eight years ago, he and his wife started a recreational soccer program at the school.

"It was to give the Hispanic or Latino students something to look forward to," Johnson said.

Several years ago, the school sanctioned the team, meaning it's now a real, competitive team, and students must keep their grades up to participate, he said. Johnson said he has seen a change in the motivation of Latino students at the school since.

"If you do not change in education, then you lose the students," Johnson said, "because the students are constantly changing."

Excellence in Education

The Tribune asked this year's winners of the Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education to answer the question, "What is one thing Utah is doing well when it comes to education, and what's one thing you'd like to see changed?"

Michael R. Thompson

Ninth-grade English teacher at Fairfield Junior High, Kaysville

"One thing Utah does well is involve communities and families in education, which is why we fare so well despite such large class sizes. One thing I'd like to see changed is a compensation system in which those who interact with students the least get paid the most."

Jerry D. Haslam

Principal at Taylorsville High School

"The teachers who work with our children are Utah's greatest educational asset. Their dedication, expertise and professionalism are without equal. We need to stabilize education funding in Utah. We have opportunities and innovative programs available, but just when we make some gains in the programs we offer, we lose funding and we have to start over."Larry Litizzette

Biology teacher at Mountain Crest High School, Hyrum

"Utah's biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. We operate on the lowest budget per student of any state and we succeed because of our teachers, administrators, staff, families and benefactors. This trend, however, cannot continue. Our brightest students and our at-risk students will not be served as class size increases. We will also lose the next generation of exceptional teachers with lower pay and fewer benefits. It's high time we realize this and start to pay for our children."Ronald G. Wicks

Teacher at American Fork Junior High

"Utah schools provide so many varied opportunities for students to find success both academically and in extracurricular activities that most students are well served by the experience. Smaller class sizes would enable teachers to build a better bond with their students, and with understanding comes tolerance and caring."

Sylvia Mathis

Extended Learning Program teacher at Ensign and Wasatch elementaries, Salt Lake City

"Utah loves children. We value them, support them and we appreciate their impressive potential. I see teachers determined to help each child succeed, though one child's needs may differ significantly from another's. Teachers, too, need increased support and encouragement to use their creativity, stretching beyond testing and textbooks, molding lives of promise."

Lars E. Johnson

Chemistry/Physics teacher at Gunnison Valley High School

"Utah's teachers as a whole are committed to the success of the students they serve. With the challenges that face education, such as budgets and teacher-to-student ratios, Utah's teachers strive hard to help each student succeed. Utah needs to place more emphasis on teaching rather than testing."

Pete Zoetmulder

Volunteer at Riverside Elementary School, West Jordan

"Since my experience as a volunteer is mostly with the sixth grade, I will restrict my answer to that area. Some students, if they do well, have the opportunity to get in more advanced classes when they go to junior high. But what about the students who put forth the effort to do well and don't quite make the grade? They are not given enough opportunities to achieve their full potential."Sheldon J. Case

Principal at Timpanogos Intermediate School, Heber City

"The focus of the state is to have a highly educated populace and having excellent teacher candidates to select from gives each child the best chance for success. Funding will always be an issue along with class size. We need to find a school funding stream that will be consistent."

Karma Dale

First-grade teacher at Rose Springs Elementary, Stansbury Park

Dale did not respond to the question, but here is an excerpt from one of her nominating letters: "At back to school night at the beginning of the year, I got teary-eyed three times as I listened to her present to us her teaching methods, philosophies on discipline and the plans she had for the school year ... She makes each one of her students feel like they are her favorite," parent Natalie Knudsen wrote. Maria Nielsen

Principal at Millville Elementary

Nielsen did not respond to the question, but here is an excerpt from one of her nominating letters: "Staff, students and parents know that Maria is never too busy to sincerely listen and that instead of sitting across the desk, she always sits next to them. She is anonjudgmental, nonthreatening, constructive problem solver whose goal is a win-win outcome," parent and school community council chairwoman Julianne Duffin wrote.