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The Excel Awards: Honoring Granite School District’s Outstanding Teachers

May 05, 2016 12:36PM ● Published by Stephanie Lauritzen

By Stephanie Lauritzen

Holladay - Despite ever-growing class sizes, funding shortages and just sheer exhaustion, teachers in Granite School District continue to work their hardest in supporting their students. Each year, the Granite Education Foundation recognizes their hard work with the Excel Award, which honors “honors superior educators – true classroom heroes – the men and women responsible for molding and preparing our children to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. These individuals have a track record of improving student achievement, using innovative instructional strategies and making a difference in the lives of students.”

Among the eleven recipients of this year’s Excel Awards, Oakwood Elementary teacher Tanja Roller and Skyline High School ASL teacher Jody Tolley share insights on helping students excel, and what makes teaching worthwhile on difficult days. “My attitude is important and it sets the tone in my classroom.  So I always try to stay positive no matter what is going on outside of my class.  I found if you genuinely care, like and respect your students they will work hard and want to excel not only for you, but for themselves as well,” Roller said.

Roller teaches first grade at Oakwood Elementary School, the fulfillment of a passion for education she’s felt since childhood. “Ever since I was little I loved learning and I was always eager to share what I learned with others.  I would always play “school” with anyone or anything- stuffed animals included- that would listen. My love for kids, learning and sharing went hand-in-hand with teaching, so it became a natural path for me to follow.”

As for why Roller remains dedicated to teaching? For her, it’s simple: “My students.  I love being involved in their education.  I love seeing the spark go off when they realize they can do it!  It is always a proud, magical moment for me when that happens. Their excitement and eagerness always gives me a desire to remain in this wonderful profession.  Last but not least, the laughter we have in our class. There is never a dull moment in a first grade class.  It makes it all worth it!”

For Jody Tolley, who teaches American Sign Language, “the best part of teaching is the “ah-ha” moments. When you work with a student who is struggling and they get it, it is just the best feeling in the world. It is also amazing when you see the growth that a student can make in just one year.”

Tolley helps students excel in and outside her classroom by finding ways to make ASL a meaningful part of their everyday lives. “I really believe that Project Based Learning (using projects to help students excel,) is powerful. Projects worth doing require real- life and higher-level thinking skills. In my class we perform a song in American Sign Language (ASL) to help earn money for Deaf children in Africa. We use ASL to debate multiple topics, and create a school-wide Deaf Awareness Week while working with the Deaf students who also attend Skyline. We also recently performed a play using ASL for both Deaf and hearing audiences. My students have a lot of fun, which means I have a lot of fun.”

But it’s when students stay in touch long after class is over that Tolley feels she’s truly excelled. “I think some of my favorite teaching moments happen long after the students leave my classroom. When students no longer have to listen to what I say, but they still choose to listen and learn. When I have a student request to do their student teaching with me, or who becomes a colleague, I know you did something right in the area of teaching.” Toller’s students stay in touch with their teacher by sending wedding invitations and baby shower invites to the school, “just hoping they will somehow find a way to me. That is when I know I made a difference beyond what is learned from a textbook.”    

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