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Utah's new Teacher of the Year honored for bringing history to life

Published October 6, 2012 11:32 am

Education • Sara Hacken named Utah's Teacher of the Year.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Orem• Emily Wright thought studying history was a waste of time before she became a student in Sara Hacken's classroom at Lakeridge Junior High.

"In elementary school, I found history boring and pointless. Dead people were dead. Who cared?" said Wright, now in ninth-grade.

But then came Hacken's class, where the teacher brought the Great Depression to life through games. She assigned students a make-believe identity and gave them an income for their journey back to the 1930s. Students planned menus using ration stamps. They struggled to keep businesses afloat. They worried about paying mortgages. Some students ran for office, while others smuggled alcohol during the prohibition era in an attempt to make some dough.

That innovative teaching idea and others are in part what earned Hacken the title of Utah's Teacher of the Year for 2013, an honor unveiled Friday night at a banquet in Salt Lake City honoring Utah's district and charter school teachers.

"We didn't just talk about the Great Depression, we lived it," said Wright, who was among those that submitted a letter of recommendation in favor of selecting Hacken as Teacher of the Year. "We worried, hoped, cried and laughed, as Wall Street plummeted, as the New Deal was signed, as Hitler began to take power," she wrote, of how Hacken engaged her students and motivated them to learn.

"Mrs. Hacken takes the raw facts of history, and helps you to see the people behind them. History turns into a giant story, with damsels in distress, evil villains, daring princes, and people just like us, struggling to get through their daily life," she said.

While Hacken was surprised to receive the award, the students, parents, administrators and fellow educators she works with regularly can't think of a more deserving candidate.

For Hacken, the award marks another milestone in a nearly 30-year career where she's worked to continue challenging herself, her own children, and her students.

Before she became a teacher, Hacken and her family moved to Utah from Kansas in 1981. Upon arrival, she watched as her third-grade daughter was required to complete a textbook she'd used the year before, and as her fifth-grader became bored in class.

Instead of complaining, she decided to become a teacher and work at the problem: developing more challenging classes for kids and teaching methods that stray outside the box.

Throughout her career, she has written grants and brought in more than $3 million in funding that has gone toward teacher training and other school programs.

Hacken also founded the gifted and talented program in Alpine District and at Lakeridge Junior High, which she says has now served thousands of students. Her service to the programs led to the creation of the Alpine District Sara Hacken Service Award in 2009, which is now awarded annually to gifted and talented teachers.

She teaches history and English in the classroom, but teaching is something that is never far from Hacken's thoughts outside of school as well, she said.

"When I think about teaching it's not something I do, it's who I am. It's what I am," said Hacken. "Deep in my core I am a teacher and I'm always teaching. Every vacation I go on I'm always looking for things to buy for the kids. I'm always looking for great new sources or great activities or something fun — I never stop thinking about it. I'm always thinking about teaching and I'm always thinking about teachers too and their dilemmas and their problems and how to help other teachers."

Garrick Peterson, principal at Lakeridge, said Hacken is an asset to the school and is always trying to make improvements instead of resting on tried and true teaching methods developed over three decades.

"She knows she's a great teacher. We know she's a great teacher," said Peterson "Sara never sits stagnant ... She is always, constantly trying to look for a better way to do things."

He said her teaching attitude is fun and it's contagious—and her students catch on.

Her passion is what sets her teaching apart, according to parent Angela Cottrell.

Each of Cottrell's five children had Hacken as a teacher and she was fascinated by the individual attention she gave them. She said Hacken never once compared one of her children to their siblings.

"She loves every kid as much as her own grand kids," she said. But unlike a relative, she makes the student responsible for their own successes and failures and never makes excuses for them like parents often do.

"She looks at every kid and says, how can I help that kid?" Cottrell said.

Patrick Trent, the media specialist at Lakeridge Junior, discovered the same thing about Hacken. When he and his son first came to the junior high school, they didn't know a soul. But Hacken identified that and helped them both adjust to the school environment, said Trent, adding all of his son's best friends came out of Hacken's class.

"She brought him into the group of the class," he said. "She helped him do hard things."

As Hacken taught a class on Thursday this week, the energy in her class was palpable, even at 8:30 a.m., when some teenagers are normally trying to wake-up.

With every seat in the classroom filled, Hacken raised her microphone to the energy, laughs and smiles of her young audience and began to teach a lesson on Christopher Columbus.

That day, she laughed at the notion that she'd be named Teacher of the Year the next day.

But Mark Peterson of the Utah State Office of Education who served on the committee to select Hacken for the award, said the longtime educator underplays her skills.

"Ms. Hacken works with junior high students, which in my mind is tough to begin with, and has earned such high praise from her colleagues and parents that her work just shone. She also is incredibly warm and personable in an interview as well as knowledgeable about her job and the state of education today," said Peterson.

As Utah Teacher of the Year, Hacken wins $10,000, a SMART Board interactive white board, a laptop computer and a $250 Visa gift card.

She'll also represent Utah in a national Teacher of the Year competition.

Runners-up are Julie Allen, a K-6 teacher from Antimony Elementary in the Garfield School District, and Jennifer Graviet, a ninth-grade English teacher at Sand Ridge Junior High in the Weber School District.

A committee representing the State Office of Education, principals, superintendents, the Utah PTA, the Utah Education Association and 2012 Teacher of the Year Leigh VandenAkker chose the 2013 winner.

jmccandless@sltrib.com

Twitter: @justiola —

Utah's Teacher of the Year

R As Utah Teacher of the Year, Sara Hacken wins $10,000, a SMART Board interactive white board, a laptop computer and a $250 Visa gift card. She'll also represent Utah in a national Teacher of the Year competition.

Runners-up are Julie Allen, a K-6 teacher from Antimony Elementary in the Garfield School District, and Jennifer Graviet, a ninth-grade English teacher at Sand Ridge Junior High in the Weber School District.

A committee representing the State Office of Education, principals, superintendents, the Utah PTA, the Utah Education Association and 2012 Teacher of the Year Leigh VandenAkker chose the 2013 winner.