2013 BP Teachers of Excellence

2013 BP Teachers of Excellence

Seven Kenai Peninsula Borough teachers were honored May 1, 2013, as 2013 BP Teachers of Excellence. The eighteenth annual BP Teachers of Excellence awards event was held at the Soldotna Senior Center, and Janet Weiss, President of BP in Alaska, presented awards with Dr. Steve Atwater, superintendent.

Rob Sparks, Skyview High School, was named the 2013 Kenai Peninsula BP Teacher of the Year.   

“The annual BP Teacher of Excellence Award is our chance to stop and recognize a few of our district's excellent teachers,” said Dr. Steve Atwater, superintendent. “I know that each of the seven teachers is an excellent representation of our staff as a whole.”

Meet the 2013 Kenai Peninsula Teachers of Excellence:

  • Donna Austin, Chapman Elementary School (Anchor Point)
  • Sue Biggs, Redoubt Elementary School (Soldotna)
  • Myla Liljemark, Seward Middle School
  • Lyn Maslow, West Homer Elementary School
  • Renee Merkes, Soldotna High School
  • Rob Sparks, Skyview High School (Soldotna)
  • Greg Zorbas, Kenai Central High School   

Donna Austin teaches kindergarten at Chapman Elementary School

“My goal as an educator is to inspire students to do their best and instill in them a love for learning. I want students to love coming to school and to enjoy the learning process. I want them to have the desire to learn all they can about the world and how they can contribute at their level. I believe the key is to teach them a love of reading, not because they have to, but because they want to.” – Donna Austin

After teaching for 26 years, colleagues still refer to Austin as “exceptional” and “amazing.” With kindness, patience and commitment, she inspires her students by taking a genuine interest in each one. She listens to ideas from her students, asks them what they want to learn, and helps them navigate new ideas. She tells her students they can do it, she believes they can, and she then praises their accomplishments. Austin’s kindergarteners participate in community clean-up and school-wide math and science nights. She’s been recognized as a Who’s Who teacher and received the Golden Apple Award from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education.

“Donna is an invaluable asset to our school and the community of Anchor Point,” said Conrad Woodhead, Chapman Elementary principal. “Her spirit of continuous improvement has benefited the students at Chapman for nearly three decades. Donna’s ‘students first’ approach, her positivity, her knowledge of how students learn, and her ability to incorporate best practices into her instruction helps make her a master at the craft of teaching young people.”

Sue Biggs teaches music at Redoubt Elementary School

As an educator, I am inspired when my students’ creative bents and inquiring minds unfold before my eyes. It is such a gift when they share their wit, insights and deep thoughts through our learning processes. The familiar warning I was once taught, “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” now holds an entirely different meaning to me; I have seen, when giving them a small window of opportunity to express their stories and ideas tied to our curriculum work, students will run with it.  We are currently finishing the work on a musical: fifty students wrote the play, over a hundred worked on costumes, props, posters, and scenery. It is a huge risk on my part to allow them to run with this project. My role is guide and consultant; I love facilitating, mingling and encouraging ... my constant challenge is to continue developing more student-directed learning. Through the inspiration of the Orff-Schulwerk (thank you to Elaine Larson and others) and the incredible journey through Leslie University’s master program in the integration of the arts, I have come to believe that my part as educator is to help each child find meaning in their learning and to give students opportunities to shine as unique individuals.” – Sue Biggs

For more than three decades, Biggs has been sharing her love of the arts with her students, working to reach them cognitively, emotionally and culturally. As a professional musician, composer, dancer and artist, she brings real life experiences to her classroom. Biggs uses technology to inspire and motivate students with Smart Boards, YouTube, Discovery Education and Finale Note Pad all useful for student composing and demonstration. Biggs also directs two musicals every year, involving as many as 200 students and staging the shows for the entire community.

“As a musician herself, Mrs. Biggs has a tremendous passion for the arts, and strives daily to instill in her students an appreciation and passion for art and music, not just as a subject to study in school, but as an extension of our daily lives,” says John Pothast, Redoubt Elementary principal. “Her dedication to our students is commendable!”

Myla Liljemark teaches social studies at Seward Middle School

“I am inspired when my students critically question history, current events, and perspectives of people they encounter in their everyday lives.  It is through these questions that evidence of thought, wonder, and independent thinking are exposed.

A goal that I have for my class, is to nurture globally competent students. These are students that understand the historic and contemporary relationships between regions, countries, and peoples of the world. These are students that understand and tolerate others within a world where international connections are the norm. Through global competency, I hope students develop an understanding of who they are as an individual, and the role they play within their society and the world.”
– Myla Liljemark

Through promoting self-awareness, student success, and international mindedness, students in Liljemark’s class are provided a student-centered learning environment where they are the drivers of their education. Liljemark believes the internationally-minded focus is key to helping students see themes of social studies played out around the world. She often brings in guest speakers from organizations such as the local historical society, National Park Service, or a Native tribe to bring real-life perspective to what’s being studied.

“Myla Liljemark is deserving of this recognition. This last year she was International Baccalaureate Certified for Social Studies. She constantly searches for ways to better engage students into what is going on in the world and to understand their part in it,” said Jason Bickling, Seward Middle School principal. “Students enjoy the minds, hands, and eyes-on activities that are a staple in her classroom. She is self-critical and reflective of her lessons and how they can be improved–then implements those changes. She takes risks regularly in her teaching and pushes the envelope in her pursuit of student engagement and learning. On top of social studies, she also teaches health, yearbook, and an enrichment history day course. She is an asset to Seward Middle School and enriches student lives on a daily basis.”

Lyn Maslow teaches 4th grade at West Homer Elementary School

I am inspired by my students’ curiosity and enthusiasm for how things work and how events are connected. One of my goals is to create a safe and comfortable environment for all kids so they can learn. I appreciate my colleagues. This year we started peer coaching through a grant, and I grew as a professional more than in any other year.” – Lyn Maslow

Maslow’s goal is to create a classroom where students are willing to express ideas, take risks, learn from each other, and celebrate success. She believes learning comes in a challenging, purposeful, and cooperative environment where different learning styles and passions are supported. A teacher for nearly 30 years, Maslow involves her students in several out-of-class ventures including marine monitoring projects, planting and harvesting community gardens, and building a schoolyard habitat and nature trail. She is also the cosponsor of West Homer Elementary School’s student council.

“Lyn Maslow is a master teacher with strengths in creativity and integration. She consistently goes above and beyond to ensure that students at West Homer Elementary School have access to creative hands-on learning that enhances the educational opportunities that we offer students,” said Raymond Marshall, principal. “Most recently Lyn chaired a project to add planter boxes in front of the school. Students assisted in this adventure and we will annually plant vegetables in these boxes and conduct research. Additionally, she is working with our trails committee to have an interpretive trail built around West Homer. Further, she actively participated in a peer coaching project that will enhance teaching and learning for both the students and the staff at West Homer. Lyn Maslow is a leader in a building of leaders and she is one of many teachers who worked hard to earn West Homer’s 2012 National Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence Award.”

Renee Merkes teaches math at Soldotna High School

“With so many dedicated and talented teachers in our district, I was deeply moved when I received the BP Teacher of Excellence Award. Every day I am inspired by the amazing students, parents, teachers and staff at SoHi and around the district. I am thankful to be a member of a math department that works together to help our students be successful after high school.” – Renee Merkes

Everyday Merkes assesses each student’s level of engagement, understanding, excitement or frustration with math. She uses what she learns to modify her daily lessons to fit the needs of the students and will even reteach a lesson to provide a more enhanced version for better understanding. Her students participate in state and national math competitions, and she is a member of the District Math Curriculum Committee. In addition to continuing her own math education through conferences and training, Merkes has former students come back each year to discuss what she taught and whether it helped prepare them for life after high school.

Todd Syverson, Soldotna High School principal said, “Mrs. Merkes gets to school early to help support her students. She works with students during her prep, during lunch and after school, and volunteers her time to support our local ski programs. Her work with our National Honor Society students and program is to be commended. Her tireless efforts put her among the “best of the best” within our District!”

Rob Sparks teaches social studies, 10th grade world history and 12th grade government at Skyview High School

“I appreciate administrators, IT staff, district office staff, and fellow teachers who support our efforts to bring new ideas to the classroom. Mr. Zorbas and I often need flexibility and new technologies to accomplish the goals we set, and whenever we have asked for anything extra people have encouraged us and provided us with the needed assistance. Most importantly I appreciate the students. Over the years as we have developed our Classroom WithOut Walls (CWOW) program, our students have been our motivation. Their acceptance of new teaching strategies and new technologies inspire us to continually improve our teaching.

I’m inspired when a student from KCHS acknowledges me as one of their teachers. On several occasions Kenai students have recognized me in the community or at different events and have taken the time to speak with me. I’m also inspired when a 35 year old mother of three comes up to me in the grocery store and introduces me to her children and then thanks me in front of them for being their teacher. I’m inspired when kids come to my class and are eager to get working because they enjoy what we are doing!” – Rob Sparks

Believing education is a 24-hour experience, Sparks encourages his students to discuss information from school at home, and has received numerous comments from parents who say their children are knowledgeable about events and subjects they never had interest in before. Sparks is a co-creator of the Classroom WithOut Walls (CWOW) Program which allows students to use digital devices and mobile technologies to connect with other parts of the world. Through CWOW, students have discussed important historical events with people who lived through them, and have been a part of videoconference lessons with students in Afghanistan, Kenya, Israel, Yemen and numerous states. This global teaching is bringing a new sense of learning and connectedness to the students at Skyview High and across the Peninsula.

“Rob Sparks was nominated for a national award from the International Society for Technology in Education, and is the Classroom Without Walls instructor. CWOW is a series of cross-cultural lessons taught by local educators delivered in real-time through video-conferencing, connecting Skyview students with students at Kenai Central High School, in Pennsylvania, in Texas, in California, and all over the world. Rob has also used CWOW to hold special events with students in Israel, Kenya, Afghanistan, Russia, and Yemen. Rob engages all his students with 1-1 computers using video conferencing and other twenty-first century skills in his classroom. Rob is definitely one of our finest educators always challenging students to achieve their best,” said Randy Neill, Skyview High School principal.

Greg Zorbas teaches 10th grade world history at Kenai Central High School

“One of the goals Mr. Sparks and I have been developing this year is a better way of making history relevant to today’s students. We are using current events to engage students to learn about the past and most importantly continually raising the expectations of our students, developing the idea that they will use history to help them make decisions in the future. We are expecting our students to ask how something happened, and why something happened then, analyzing the outcome and applying it to what is going on in the world today and what effect it may have in the future.

Mr. Sparks and I are using many forms of twenty-first century technology in our classrooms; I hope in the future we can continue to grow these opportunities. We connect our students live with students and leaders in places like Africa, Afghanistan, Israel, and Yemen or through interactive lessons from places like the Manhattan School of Music. I hope that the collaboration continues to push me professionally to continue to embrace new innovative ways of doing what we do every day.” – Greg Zorbas

Zorbas is the co-creator of the CWOW program with Robert Sparks and Gregory Weissenberg. A true innovator, Zorbas says his goal is to make these classes so interesting, students won’t want to miss. To that end, a student diagnosed with leukemia who went Outside for treatment participated in class through the videoconferencing almost every day, and those around the student said it motivated her to get up and get ready. Another student, who had been suspended, asked if he could attend class via video. Zorbas believes in inspiring students by setting high expectations and holding them accountable. His goal is to get young people thinking about how what they learn applies to their lives and how it can be used to help make decisions in the future.

Alan Fields, Kenai Central High School principal said, “Mr. Zorbas joins a long line of distinguished teachers recognized as BP teachers of excellence at KCHS. His integration of technology into his classroom has engaged students and allowed them to utilize their existing technological skills as well as develop new collaborative uses for technology in the classroom. We are proud to have Mr. Zorbas as a representative of our school.”

The BP Teachers of Excellence program recognizes teachers from throughout Alaska for their dedication to teaching and for inspiring students. The BP Teachers of Excellence program expanded last year becoming available to all Alaska school districts. Nearly 1,400 nominations were received this year. The seven Kenai Peninsula teachers are among more than 30 Alaska educators being honored as 2013 Teachers of Excellence.

Each BP Teacher of Excellence receives a $500 gift card and an award certificate. In addition, the teacher’s school receives a matching $500 grant. One Kenai teacher was chosen as BP’s Teacher of the Year at the May 1, 2013. Robert Sparks from Skyview High School was chosen, and he received a $1,500 scholarship for continuing education and a bronze sculpture by Alaska artist Mary Regat.

“Recognizing outstanding Alaska educators is among the most rewarding and important aspects of BP’s investment in Alaska,” said Phil Cochrane, Vice President of External Affairs, BP Exploration (Alaska). “It is an honor to say thank you to these teachers who areinvesting themselves to make sure Alaska’s young people are receiving the best possible education as they head down the path to future success.”

Link: BP Teachers of Excellence