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Eleven Utah educators honored with Huntsman awards, cash

Published May 6, 2013 7:24 am

Principals, teachers and volunteer get a well-deserved pat on back, $10K.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jody Duffy Brings didn't think she was ready to be a teacher.

She was in her mid-20s, still working to get her teaching certificate and had little experience. Still, when a Utah Catholic school had an opening, her father bet her $5 that if she interviewed for the position she'd get it.

Sure enough, she soon owed her dad the cash.

Nearly 30 years later, Brings is one of the most beloved teachers at her school, Salt Lake City's Bryant Middle. She's one of 11 educators this year to win Huntsman Awards for Excellence in Education, each worth $10,000.

Each year, Karen and Jon Huntsman sponsor the awards, and a committee chooses winners from nominations submitted from across the state.

"We got hundreds of applications, and with tears rolling down the judges' faces we read about this teacher," Karen Huntsman told hundreds of students gathered at a recent Bryant assembly to surprise and honor Brings. "She gives you self confidence. She gives you the ability to step forward in your life and make a difference."

For once, Brings, a former acting student, was speechless when Karen Huntsman called her to the stage of her school.

"My teeth are shaking, I'm so floored," Brings told the students. "I don't know what to say. My mother is going to just be so proud."

Brings' mother is a big reason she decided to go into teaching. Her mom, Mary Duffy, now 94, worked for years as an English teacher and librarian at Judge Memorial Catholic High School.

"We always were taught to speak well and write well at home," Brings said. "I think it's very powerful if you can be articulate."

It's a lesson she aims to teach students in her theater and language arts classes at Bryant, where she's worked for nearly five years.

Eighth-grader Sophia Perkins said Brings helped her get into Bryant's advanced-learning program this year. Eighth-grader Madisin Martinez said Brings is known for her humor and constant laugh.

She's made such an impression on her students one of them nominated her for it. Karen Huntsman said it's unusual for young students to start the process for their teachers. Usually, adults — co-workers, former students, bosses or parents — nominate teachers.

But eighth-grader Charlie Vandel wanted to show Brings how much he appreciated her.

Vandel wrote in his nomination that he felt nervous and shy when he first arrived at Bryant as a new student. But soon Brings helped Vandel get involved in activities such as history fair, science fair, acting class and district jazz band. She inspired him to participate, to broaden his horizons and abilities.

Her enthusiasm was contagious.

"You can really tell she enjoys being a teacher," Vandel said. "You feel better when you walk into her class."

This year, 10 educators and one school volunteer have been named winners of the Huntsman Awards for Excellence in Education, worth $10,000 each. The program is in its 21st year. Below is a list of the other winners, along with quotes from those who helped nominate them.

David Stephenson

Principal at Traverse Mountain Elementary School in Lehi

"I first met David Stephenson when he knocked on our door in the summer of 2001. A boundary change had switched our kids from Westfield to Alpine Elementary. When I answered, Mr. Stephenson introduced himself and asked if he could meet and talk with three of our children. He said he wanted to get to know them a little so he could put them with the teacher who was the best match for each of them. I was blown away."

— Stan, Craig, Ryan and Emily Jones, parent and students

Suzanne Moss

First grade dual-immersion teacher at Foothill Elementary in Brigham City

"She teaches in a rural area of Utah and is often faced with many challenges ... But instead of getting burned out and worn down she takes on more responsibility despite these precarious times." Although her role as the English teacher for Foothill's new Chinese Immersion program comes with no extra pay and a slew of new challenges, "she has taken on this new responsibility with vigor and confidence."

— Valenka Leavitt, parent

Marcelle Ross

Fifth-grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary in Holladay

"Science is a subject that if taught with a 'hands on approach' can have a long lasting impact on a student. Marcelle Ross uses this type of learning ... Milky Ways are used to teach about weathering and wind erosion... Making compasses with string and magnetized rods and watching them pull towards true north was a memorable experience for my daughter."

— Tina Seastrand, PTA president 2011-2012

Carl Swenson

Principal at Payson Junior High in Payson

"Carl is a no nonsense administrator. When a teacher asks for something, the first question he asks is, 'How will that help students be more successful or how will that help the students learn more?' If the teacher can answer the question satisfactorily, the teacher knows they have his full support."

— J. Merrill Hallam, teacher/parent

Robert Thomas Hicks

Principal at Bingham High School in South Jordan

"I've often thought that Tom views education as a giant chess board; he has a gift for seeing 4 or 5 moves ahead of what our school is currently doing for kids, and carefully strategizes future steps to move the educational experience at Bingham toward a 'winning' position."

— Janice Voorhies, Jordan School District board member

Margaret Obray

AP History, AP Government and Law teacher at Mountain Crest High in Hyrum

"Mrs. Obray completely changed my way of thinking. She taught me the value in being well informed before you speak your opinion, and to base that opinion off facts that can be backed up with evidence. ... She explained and demonstrated that people are going to have different opinions and that was OK, that it was acceptable to 'agree to disagree.'"

— Alexandria Hansen, former student/teacher

James W. Felt

Department chair for Social studies; AP History, Honors World Civilization teacher at Olympus High in Holladay

"All classes are at capacity. Why do so many students clamor to get in to his classes? Because he is outstanding! He makes the material real and relevant. ... He wears costumes representing historical figures while he lectures as if he were actually that ancient person."

— Kirsten Ronna, PTA president-elect

Debbie Beninati

Volunteer in the music and orchestra programs at Lone Peak Elementary in Sandy

"For the last three years she has volunteered her time and money to establish and maintain a successful school orchestra. Without Debbie being so willing to spend countless hours with the students of Lone Peak, our music program would not exist."

— McKay Robinson, Lone Peak Elementary principal

Jo Edan Parker

Self contained severe special education teacher at Mapleton Junior High in Mapleton

"Along with teaching her students reading, writing and arithmetic, she prepares them for their entrance into society. ... Every month Miss Parker organizes field trips to give her kids exposure to outside the classroom experiences."

— Linda J. Lewis, P.E./drama teacher at Mapleton Junior High

Michelle Mourtgos

Math and Spanish teacher at Grantsville Junior High in Grantsville

"I know how critical the junior high school years are for students and what an adjustment they go through as they transition to this new phase of their lives. I believe having a positive role model during this time is critical to a student's success. I am happy that Mrs. Mourtgos was available and chose to fill that role in my son's life."

— Parent KennaRae Arave