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Seventeen years ago, Leigh VandenAkker figured her life was complete.

She was raising three boys and substitute teaching part time. But then life took an unexpected turn. Her mother and sister passed away within a short time of each other. VandenAkker spent many long nights discussing the future with her sister, the mother of three young girls, during her sister's chemo treatments.

VandenAkker's sister told her to be strong. She told her to be a role model for her nieces. "You cannot stay in bed and cry," her sister told her. "You are the one who gets to live; you must show them how."

She taught VandenAkker how to have the strength to face what she wasn't sure she could.

It's a lesson VandenAkker, who became a full-time teacher shortly afterward, now passes onto her students, many of whom are grappling with how to handle their own life challenges. It's become her class motto: "I can do hard things." It's inscribed on a blue banner that hangs at the front of her classroom at East High School in Salt Lake City.

On Friday, VandenAkker was named Utah's Teacher of the Year for 2012 for teaching her students that lesson and others as part of her Techniques for Tough Times class. The elective class, open to students in grades 9-12, emphasizes communication skills, problem solving, goal setting, self discipline, group dynamics and study skills, based on a curriculum co-written by VandenAkker and Gayle Threet, a counselor in the Jordan district. VandenAkker's been teaching the class since 1994, first at Taylorsville High and now at East.

"Many times we talk about our young people and say, 'Why don't they do this? Why don't they do that?'" VandenAkker said. "But many times we haven't taught them what to say and how to say it."

East High principal Paul Sagers, one of the people who recommended VandenAkker for the statewide teacher honor, said her class has helped shape the school culture.

"The impact that it has on the entire school is tremendous because she's empowering kids to then go out ... and actually make positive change throughout the school," Sagers said.

VandenAkker's work is evident in her students' manners. On a recent school day, she gave them time to work on homework from other classes. But she didn't give it to them lightly.

First, she asked each of them to tell her why they needed that time. One by one, each of her students stood, often starting with, "Hi Mrs. V.," or "How are you?" They then told her, in front of the class, why they needed the period to study independently.

"My grades are pretty good right now, but I feel like I'm getting close to falling behind with football practice," one boy announced.

"I'm not very happy with my grades right now, and I think I can use this time to catch up with a couple of my classes, especially math," another student said.

VandenAkker responded by telling the students, individually, that she was proud of them, or asking if they had talked to their other teachers about their struggles. She told one girl, in front of the class: "I've noticed a change in your attitude. You're really wanting to do well, and I hope all the teachers have noticed."

After each student spoke, all the others applauded.

Then, they got their study time.

VandenAkker teaches her students to look others in the eye when talking, to start requests and conversations with pleasantries, and to listen to others respectfully. They're basic negotiating skills, needed in life for everything from getting a job to communicating with family.

"Many of them get nervous, so when they go into conversations they come across as confronting or challenging," VandenAkker said, noting that some of her students, such as football players, also can seem that way if they're not careful, because of their size.

East High football player Korey Rush said the class has taught him "how to communicate with other people and show people I respect them and they can trust me."

"Communication can take you far in this world," he added.

VandenAkker said she wants to make sure her students know they have a voice.

Many East High students consider VandenAkker to be one of the school's best teachers. They say she genuinely seems to care about them and inspires respect.

"We respect her so much because she respects us," said senior Chase Barney. "She'll always look you in the eye and hear what you have to say. She doesn't judge you ... She wants you to be successful."

Some students said they didn't want to take the class at first. But as they got to know VandenAkker, they were glad they did.

"I just think she's amazing because she doesn't only care about you as a person, she loves you," said senior Nahiya Noor. "She respects you as a person no matter who you are or where you came from or what you've been through."

Or, put more simply, said sophomore Sam Paredes, "She's the bomb."

Still, VandenAkker is careful not to take all the credit, saying she's just one small part of "a great team."

"Honestly, East High is amazing," VandenAkker said. "The whole school are teachers of the year, not just me."

As Utah Teacher of the Year, VandenAkker wins $10,000, a SMART Board interactive white board, a classroom amplification system and a laptop computer.

She'll also represent Utah in a national teacher of the year competition and meet President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. And she'll attend Space Camp in Alabama.

Runners-up are Jared Berrett, a technology, digital media and engineering teacher at San Juan High School in Blanding, and Jennifer Bodell, a sixth-grade teacher at Harry S. Truman Elementary School in West Valley City.

A committee representing the State Office of Education, principals, superintendents, the Utah PTA, the Utah Education Association and 2011 Teacher of the Year Gay Beck chose VandenAkker as the winner from among 18 nominations from school districts and charter schools.

Other winners

Runners-up to Utah's Teacher of the Year are Jared Berrett, a technology, digital media and engineering teacher at San Juan High School in Blanding, and Jennifer Bodell, a sixth-grade teacher at Harry S. Truman Elementary School in West Valley City.