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Announcing the 2021 Dewey Award Winners

Grow Schools

December 9, 2021

Announcing The 2021 Dewey Award Winners

The Dewey Awards celebrate teachers who change lives every day, in and out of the classroom. Named for Richard Dewey, an inspiring, life-changing, potential-recognizing teacher of Charter School Capital (CSC) President and CEO, Stuart Ellis, the stories received for this year’s Dewey Awards are an incredible reminder of the tremendous impact made by teachers.

Picking just three winners for the $1,000 charter school grants is no easy task. But thanks to the amazing review board, three exceptional teacher stories have been chosen. These authors will each receive a $1,000 grant for the Charter School of their choice, to continue supporting the great work of our country’s educators.

Read the winning stories in their unedited form below.

Inspirational Teacher: Mr. Kyle Johnson

Story by Tracy Nelson of CORE Charter School in Marysville, CA

Why would a 1st-year teacher inspire me, a 30-plus year experienced teacher?

Well, Mr. Kyle Johnson came to our cute little charter school 2 years ago as a son of a physics teacher who was inspired by his father who passed unexpectedly. He was going to teach science and make his father proud!

What makes him inspirational? It is his ability to serve and respect his families and their kindergarten through twelfth-grade kids. It is his genuine kind acts to our students with disabilities and how he connects with them. He creates special classes like Garden & Agriculture where students of second languages and disabilities can connect with the outdoors, the community, the school, and other students.

Kyle Johnson juggles a hectic schedule of center classes, meetings, clubs, field trips, fiancé, and a roster of students with his innate ability to really care about learning and thriving. He offers innovative classes like Ichthyology and Ecology. He oversees our college-bound science students as they complete rigorous coursework. He keeps high expectations for his students with objectives that can be met. His students feel challenged and engaged. They look forward to Mr. Johnson’s sense of humor and cunning ability to be excited about the subject matter. Students and parents trust him with their concerns, and he listens.

I observe his daily acts of kindness when a student feels awkward during episodes of autistic fits. He gently smiles and encourages and supports the student to continue working through class. I witness his gentle demeanor with the littlest of students as he guides them through their ABCs. I watch him challenge his gifted students with thinking outside the box and current research. I hear him comforting and cheering his virtual students through their science lessons and tutoring sessions. He can go from reading, “If you give a mouse a cookie…” to spouting the standard deviations in fish species populations.

The staff at CORE Charter School look to this greenie for ideas in coping with students, technology, and lesson planning. He keeps a caring, humorous nature as sports competitions break out among the staff rivals. As due dates and difficulties are faced while completing record deadlines, you can hear him sing to the grading system to encourage it to allow his submissions to go through.

Kyle walks his new families through the independent study program with ease and organization. His families feel heard and connected to the school because Kyle knows the K-12 curriculum and hears their concerns. He adapts, adjusts, but continues to hold families accountable.

Ever since he joined our school there is happiness in the halls and humor around the corner. In a time like this, we need all the smiles and kindness we can get, and Kyle Johnson offers this. Why am I inspired by Kyle Johnson? It is because he is the teacher we can only hope to be.

Inspirational Teacher: Katie Tautphaeus

Story by Dottie Abshire from Global Village Academy of Northglenn, CO

Joy is contagious. Infectious, even. And when a teacher is joyful, the classroom morphs from prison to playground in an instant.

School was always my escape from home. I had a tumultuous upbringing, but I could count on the stability of a schedule, dependable adults, and the comfort of books at school. Between the ages of 5 and 15, I attended 17 different schools in three different states. Each transition was a struggle. Because I was inevitably the new girl, floundering in the increasingly difficult social dynamics that come with growing up, I was labeled shy. I could be found in between the pages of chapter books before I could tie my own shoes. I was regularly pegged as “the smart girl” in each class and I relished the label because it gave me a place in the dynamic.

In the 8th grade, I attended Staley Middle School in Frisco, Texas, and I was enrolled in Mrs. Katie Tautphaeus’ English class. Mrs. Tautphaeus was a blonde, spunky, and medium-young teacher. She taught with reckless abandon, making it obvious to everyone that she truly loved doing what she did. She made sentence structure a scintillating experience, turned grammar into a game, and made me fall in love with writing. To this day, I still love diagraming sentences! Her energy was a contagion in our class, her joy and love for learning sparked an eruption of creativity in my class. I adored Mrs. Tautphaeus.

Early in the school year, I arrived at school with a black eye. My other teachers questioned me, of course, but I had a beautiful story concocted, which they seemed to buy: hook, line, and sinker. But when I got to my favorite class, English, and Mrs. Tautphaeus asked me what happened, I struggled with my carefully chosen words, not wanting to lie to my most adored teacher. Instead of answering with the truth, I simply replied, “I can’t tell you, ma’am. Whatever I could tell you wouldn’t be the truth anyway.” Mrs. Tautphaeus raised an eyebrow and patted my shoulder in response.

Of course, she had to report her suspicions. As a teacher, I realize now that she was under a legal obligation to do so, but the events that followed were traumatic. The counselor called in my mother and we sat in the same room while I anxiously answered questions about my injury as truthfully as I felt I could without divulging what really happened. For months afterward, I carefully avoided drawing attention to myself, retreating into a quiet version of myself, withdrawn and alone. I hoped no one would notice me, or try to follow up on the events that transpired, but secretly I wished to be noticed and known. But Mrs. Tautphaeus noticed. She noticed both my retreat into me and honored my wish in the most spectacular way. She never again brought up the abuse that resulted in that black eye, but she was quietly paying attention to me. She noted what I wrote about in free writing time, somehow found out my clothes size, and paid careful attention to all sorts of tiny details. These observations culminated in one spectacular way.

On the last day of the semester, right before Winter Break, Mrs. Tautphaeus asked me to wait in the hall during the class festivities. I was instantly filled with dread because when a teacher sent you to the hall, the hall monitors would pick you up and bring you to the principal’s office for disciplinary action. I sat outside the door, wondering what I could have done to warrant punishment when Mrs. Tautphaeus appeared through the door holding the largest Christmas bag I’d ever seen and wearing a mischievous grin. “I got you a little something for Christmas. Open it!” I opened a total of 30 gifts, both big and small, some necessary, like clothing, and some superfluous, like the mobile reading lamp clip. Each gift was an echo of something I had written about, or mentioned in passing, and testified to Mrs. Tautphaeus’ stellar observation skills. But they were all meaningful and spectacular. At this moment, knowing that she had been watching me, taking careful consideration of me and that she thought I was special enough to deserve such care, I was overwhelmed. Gratitude filled my heart and left a mark in my heart that deepened my lifelong love of learning in such a spectacular way that I decided at that moment that I wanted to be someone else’s Katie Tautphaeus.

In every way, I have attempted to emulate her example of joy and love in my classroom and in my life in general, hoping to leave an everlasting mark on the heart of a soul so desperately in need of love, just like mine.

Inspirational Teacher: Theresa Wright

Story by Amara Lee Brenner of Sycamore Valley Academy of Visalia, CA

image of Dewey Award Winner Theresa Wright

It’s easy to give up on kids. Actually, it’s frighteningly easy to give up on kids. It is especially true for teachers. When you are a teacher, with twenty-eight faces staring at you, and one face is not staring at you, and one pen is not writing, and one voice is interrupting you constantly, the easiest thing to do is send that child out of the room until they are, “ready to learn.” That is exactly what happens in the classrooms across America. That is exactly why we need charter schools. Charter schools and Lille Sycamore Valley Academy do not push out kids. Instead, we hire people like Theresa Wright.

When Theresa Wright started at Sycamore Valley Academy, she was a teacher’s aide. In those years, she had some kind of magic about her. I have been a teacher for over fourteen years, and she did things that I couldn’t do. When she came into my room, she walked the same walk as a lion who walks into the prairie; casual, cool, completely in charge. When I gestured toward the kid who needed help, she invited the child to come along with her, outside. I still have no idea what she said to those children, or what she did, but they always came back in with that same lion aura she had. The rest of my day went smoothly and the kid completed their work.

That is the honest truth of the teaching world: Even the world’s greatest teacher needs a great teacher’s aide. With twenty-eight eyes facing forward, smack in the middle of a lesson about Mesopotamia, I can’t stop addressing the needs of one child. That’s life in education. There’s really no way around it. The charter schools, with the choices that we are given, with the parents who choose to send their children to our school, invest in these kinds of moments. Sycamore Valley Academy invests in people like Theresa Wright. When a teaching position came open, our school posted the job. There were other teachers who applied, with full credentials, but not one of those applicants had the magic that Theresa Wright did. The next year, she wrote “Mrs. Wright” on the board, and third graders walked into her room. One of those third-graders was my son, Ethan.

Things didn’t always go so smoothly: We hit a pandemic, her own kid hit the emergency room multiple times and she rolled with every punch. My kid would tell me that his teacher was “cool” and come bragging about something he learned in her class. Even in the middle of a pandemic, Theresa took the time to let her class share about their passions, from anime to skateboarding to black holes. When you talk in Mrs. Wright’s classroom today, post-pandemic, post-Distance Learning, you can hardly tell that it’s her classroom: It is their classroom. There is student art all over the walls, there is student interest and posters all over. Every gift that students bring her crowd her desk. She treats every child, including my son, like they are the only child in the world like she has a classroom of one. When my son wanted to give up, she found a way to reach him. When any student is sitting outside her classroom, she takes her recess break to talk it out. I really don’t know how to duplicate the magic she does.

That is what Sycamore Valley Academy does: we find people like Theresa Wright and match them to classrooms where they change the world, one kid at a time. We don’t give up on any kid.

Along with the winning submissions, there are a number of amazing stories of inspiration that deserve honorable mention. Find those on the blog in the weeks to come. Bookmark our blog page or follow us on Instagram to get a weekly dose of educator inspiration.

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