Kenai teacher earns top BP award

Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2003

They are teachers at schools small and large, instructing students in everything from general studies to math and science and from health to home economics. They span the Kenai Peninsula, teaching everywhere from Nan-walek to Homer and from Seward to Kenai.

Different as their jobs and lives may be, though, these teachers have a few things in common. One is their passion for their students' success and the subjects they teach.

Another is their recent recognition as outstanding educators.

Seven Kenai Peninsula Borough School District teachers were among the 26 educators selected statewide as BP Teachers of Excellence for the 2002-03 school year.

The program, which is a partnership between BP and school districts throughout the state, has been going for seven years. Community members, students and educators nominate teachers for recognition, and regional panels select outstanding teachers for the award each year in Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

"The kids in school now are our future workforce, for us, as well as the community," said Tammie Anderson, the associate director of community affairs for BP in Alaska. "The teachers teaching them are a valuable resource for the community and for all Alaskans. We feel they need to be recognized."

KPBSD superintendent Donna Peterson agreed.

"Teachers work very, very hard. It's difficult to pick out the best of the best," she said. "This is a chance to say, Thank you for all you do.'"

Each BP Teacher of Excellence receives not only the public accolades for their efforts, but also $500 for educational resources or continuing education and a commemorative plaque. They also are automatically nominated for the BP Teacher of the Year award, and the winner of that award receives a $1,500 scholarship for continuing education and a bronze sculpture.

The winner of this year's Teacher of the Year award was announced Friday night: John Wensley, a fourth-grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai.

"I am truly humbled to be a BP Teacher of Excellence. My fellow BP Teachers of Excellence are an amazing group of educators with incredible talents and dedication to their students. Being part of this group was an honor in itself,"

Wensley said in a written comment Monday. "To be awarded Teacher of the Year was quite a shock to my senses. ... My school has no shortage of talented teachers who constantly go the extra mile to benefit kids. I am just one of many."

According to a press release from BP, Wensley has been cited for his creative teaching techniques and his interest in technology.

"A great curriculum doesn't accomplish much unless it is paired up with an atmosphere where learning can take place. That is exactly what (he) provides," wrote a parent supporting Wensley's nomination for the award.

Wensley himself credits the atmosphere of his school for his ability to provide quality education for students.

"I have the great privilege of working in a building where divergent thinking is not only allowed but encouraged," he said. "My administrator, Mr. Jim Dawson, has always been supportive of new ways to increase student involvement and achievement and has allowed me to pursue projects that help to motivate student learning."

Many of those projects have served not only his classes, but the fourth-grade classes taught in the room next door by his wife, Berni Wensley.

"I have the great honor of working side by side in a team teaching format with my wife," he said. "This experience allows us to truly capitalize on each other's strengths and therefore makes us a very effective teaching couple."

One of the most recent activities the Wensleys have undertaken is the production of a video titled, "A Kid's Guide to the Kenai." The two classes have hosted visitors who have taught students about Kenai's past as well as current issues and who have donated pictures for the students to use in the production. The video will premier at the Kenai City Council meeting in the council chambers May 21.

The classes also have hosted Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who shared insights on Alaska and the federal government with students. In addition, the classes have spent the year corresponding with a local graduate serving in the Peace Corps and acted out a court case involving the crash of the Titanic.

"Mountain View is a wonderful place to work," Wensley said. "I am surrounded by so many talented, dedicated teachers. I feel that this award is a recognition for our whole staff and the hundreds of hours they spend above and beyond the regular school day to give the students of Kenai the best possible education."

Other winners of the BP Teacher of Excellence award also expressed their appreciation for their fellow teachers.

"I'm sure there are many teachers in Alaska who are excellent teachers. All of us are doing the best we can to help kids succeed in school and in life," said award recipient Virginia Glenn, who has taught third, fourth and fifth grades at Nanwalek School for the past nine years. "I'm humbled and honored (by the award)."

Glenn, who is in her 24th year of teaching and spent time at North Star Elementary School in Nikiski prior to moving to Nanwalek, said teaching in a multi-age class is a challenge.

"I try to let kids reach toward their potential. The span of levels in our class is enormous," she said. "I try to prepare lessons everyone can benefit from, so no one is bored and everyone is challenged. The kids bring their ideas into the instructional setting as well, and that makes it more fun for all of us."

Though the job may be a challenge, Glenn said it is one she loves.

"I consider teaching more of a hobby than a job," she said. "I want the kids to walk away with self-confidence and to make good choices for themselves for their lives and their futures."

Jeanna Carver agreed that teaching is more than a job.

Carver, who is in her 15th year of teaching health and home economics at Soldotna High School, said she believes it's important to interact with students outside the classroom.

"I want to be a role model for them," she said. "Kids need to see me as more than just a classroom teacher."

She said she doesn't just talk to kids about healthy lifestyles, she sets an example, walking or running every day and finding balance in her own life.

"Teaching health, you can talk forever about nutrition and eating right, but unless the kids see you out doing it ... ."

Carver said one of her favorite parts of the job is spending time with students on a personal level.

"I love when kids come in at lunch. They're alone and come to talk to me," she said. "It makes me feel like more than a teacher. To me, that is always success."

Of course, academics are a priority, too.

Dan Calhoun, who has taught eighth-grade math at Homer Middle School for the past 10 years, said setting high standards and helping students meet the expectations is his priority in teaching.

"My basic approach to education is first to recognize that students want to do well," he said. "My goal for my students is that I can help provide an education so that when they make a decision about what they want to do, their education is not a barrier. I want to give them the tools to pursue any goal they might have."

Hal Neace agreed.

"Probably what I'm known for is connecting science and science concepts to the real world," said Neace, who spent 10 years teaching in Seldovia before moving to Homer Middle School. "My greatest hope is that (the students) understand science is for everyone. The more you understand how your world, your universe, operates and functions, you'll be a more interesting person, a more broad-based individual, a more informed citizenry.

"Most of us don't go into science, but it's important to have scientific literacy in our lives," he said. "The other thing I hope students take away is not to have their sense of wonder squelched or blocked."

Other award winners, who could not be reached for comment, include Marc Swanson of Seward Elementary School and Caroline Venuti of West Homer Elementary School.

Swanson teaches fifth and sixth grades at Seward Elementary and is a past winner of the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation grant, with which he guided two of his classes through a sea lion articulation process. According to a press release from BP regarding the awards, Swanson says his classes are characterized by "students actively involved in a dynamic learning environment."

Swanson also regularly involves students' families in projects and has built strong links between the school and community businesses and organizations, according to the press release.

Venuti teaches third grade at West Homer Elementary. She has received the school district's Golden Apple Award, as well as the Pat on the Back Award from the Alaska State Library Association. She also teaches education courses at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College.

"Caroline is a longtime educator who has remained current in all educational trends and research," said West Homer Elementary Principal Charlie Walsworth. "She's a highly professional person and has been a great help to me as an administrator in my first year at West Homer.

"She continues to have a love of children. She is a great child advocate, a great member of the staff and an asset for our West Homer team."

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