Aaryn Birchell traces the roots of her teaching career to when she was a 5-year-old kindergarten student in the small Utah community of Jensen.
After school, Birchell said, she would pass on the reading lessons she learned to her younger brother.
“When he went to school the next year he was ready to go,” Birchell said. “I‘ve always had a passion for what learning is.”
On Friday, eight years after she began teaching English at Uintah High School — and another 12 years as a substitute before that — Birchell was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year for 2018.
She receives a $10,000 check and the opportunity to compete for the title of national Teacher of the Year, which includes a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet President Donald Trump, along with other state-level winners.
Birchell said she was shocked to be even a finalist for the honor. Less surprised was Sharon Shipton, principal of Uintah High School, who said before the announcement that a celebration was planned for Monday.
“The whole school is excited,” Shipton said. “My own personal children have had her. They said ‘She’s tough. She’s challenging, but I learned so much in her class.’ ”
Birchell’s selection was announced during an annual banquet, held this year at the Marriott University Park hotel in Salt Lake City.
Runners-up for the statewide honor were Davis High School band director Steven Hendricks, who received $3,000, and Montezuma Creek Elementary teacher Jenny Atcitty, who received $2,000.
Other finalists included Jeffery Hall, a fifth grade teacher at Scholar Academy Charter School and Erin Newsome, a language arts teacher at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center.
The winner and runners-up were chosen from a pool of school district and regional teachers of the year by a committee comprised of Utah State Board of Education representatives, school principals, teachers and last year’s Teacher of the Year, West High School educator Valerie Gates.
In Birchell’s nominating materials, former student Danielle Heaton wrote that she never met a teacher who works as hard to support students.
“Aaryn Birchell goes above and beyond to provide real-life support for the students under her care,” Heaton wrote. ”From meaningful assignments, to celebrations of reaching goals, to being a true and constant support for struggling teens, to many other facets of her selfless efforts, she truly lives up to the honor it is to be called ‘teacher.’”
Shipton praised Birchell’s professionalism, but added that her colleague is also able to “let her hair down.” Shipton said she regularly checks in on Uintah High teachers for 5- or 10-minute classroom visits, but often loses track of time during Birchell‘s lessons.
“Hers is one of those classes where I find myself sitting down and staying because it’s that engaging,” Shipton said. ”It’s amazing what she does and her passion for teaching.”
Birchell graduated from Uintah High School in 1992. While she knew she wanted to teach, she said she did not plan on remaining in Uintah County.
But after studying at Utah State University and completing a mission in Australia for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said “met a really cute guy who just happened to live in Vernal.”
As teacher of the year, Birchell said she hopes to promote a message that career educators can maintain a healthy work-life balance. Too often, she said, teachers expect themselves or others to give up their personal lives in service of their students.
“I can still be a good mom and a good teacher,” Birchell said. “I would like to see people going into education knowing that you can still be a really good teacher and have a life outside of your career.”
Asked how she plans to spend her $10,000 check, Birchell said that she and her husband are “savers.” But she added that some of the winnings might go for home and family expenses.
“We’re sending our daughter on a mission in a month; that would help,” she said. ”I also told my husband I might remodel the bathroom.”