By Lauren Brown
Everyone likes to be recognized for a job well done, but rarely do people receive a heartfelt kudos for the work they do. This is especially true for those who work in the classroom teaching kids who will grow up to become the community leaders of the future.
Each year, Harney County School District No. 3 honors three teachers who go the extra mile for their students and colleagues. The Educators of the Year for 2008 are Angie Halvorson, a reading specialist at Slater Elementary School; Barb Garner, a language arts teacher at Hines Middle School; and Eric Ersch, an arts/crafts teacher at Burns High School.
There are a lot of teachers in Angie Halvorson’s family. Her father was a math teacher and administrator, her brother is a math teacher and her sister is a science teacher. “I always grew up with conversations about school,” she said.
It seems only fitting that Halvorson would also go into education. As the reading specialist at Slater Elementary School for the last four years, Halvorson works with kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. “We help those students who need a little boost with reading,” she said. “We try to make things as fun as we possibly can.”
While Halvorson was a good student growing up, she didn’t particularly like reading. It was something she associated with school, so she didn’t begin to read for pleasure until she was in college and one of her professors helped her realize that reading could be fun.
Halvorson relates to those students who struggle with learning to read. “We need to change the way we think about what constitutes reading,” she said. She tells beginning students to “read something easy, as long as it’s fun.” She said that even reading picture books or magazines can be beneficial if it gives a child reading enjoyment because that can then spread to other facets of reading.
Halvorson was inspired to become a teacher when she was in the fourth grade in Diane Urizar’s class in Harney County. She then went on to high school in Elgin, where her high school math teacher was a man named Bob Thomas. “He pushed you to the limit,” she said. “But he helped everyone reach his expectations. He was really dedicated.” Halvorson hopes she also brings that dedication to the classroom, giving her students enough help to exceed their own goals.
Halvorson earned her bachelor’s degree from Eastern Oregon University along with a reading endorsement. She received her master’s degree in reading from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz.
Halvorson appreciates the working environment at Slater. “All the teachers know all the kids. I think that’s the biggest advantage here — that sense of community,” she said.
In addition to being named the Slater Educator of the Year, Halvorson was also honored as the Harney County Teacher of the Year at the annual Chamber of Commerce Awards Banquet held in January. “It’s a big deal. It feels really amazing,” she said. “It’s nice to know that people appreciate what you’re doing.” She noted that the other teachers and staff at Slater are instrumental to her job in the classroom. “It really should be a team award,” she said.
Hines Middle School teacher Barb Garner started out teaching fourth- and fifth-graders in La Grande and John Day.
“At first I thought I would never want to teach middle school,” she said. However, as a sixth- and seventh-grade language arts teacher in Hines, now she can’t imagine teaching any other age group. “The kids are great. They have a ton of energy. They’re fun,” she said.
Garner received her bachelor of arts degree in elementary education from Eastern Oregon University and has been teaching in Harney County for 12 years. During that time she has seen two of her children graduate from the Burns-Hines schools and go on to college, with another due to graduate this year. Two more children, a 12-year-old and a 5-year-old, are currently working their way through the school system. “We’ve got a good school district, we really do,” she said.
Garner believes the Burns-Hines schools do prepare students for a higher education. “You kind of worry when you’re from a little town, but if you can read and write well, you’re going to do fine,” she said
That is why she feels language arts classes are so important. Her classes focus on reading, writing, spelling, grammar and speaking skills. “They need to be able to speak and write. Building their vocabulary is important, too,” she said. Activities in Garner’s class include writing poetry and essays as well as giving speeches and working on crossword puzzles and word games.
One tradition that she has carried on from former Burns-Hines educator Sandy Cargill involves memorizing and reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a long poem by Robert W. Service. If a student takes on the challenge and succeeds, they get massive extra credit. “It’s hard but every year kids do it,” she said.
Another lesson plan that Garner’s students work on involves reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” and interviewing locals who lived during World War II.
Garner believes in challenging kids to do their best. Garner remembers taking an AP English class when she was going to high school. “My teacher was just brutal,” she said. “He took one of my essays and threw it in the garbage.” While it was a harsh move, it did challenge her to step it up and work harder.
Garner is never that cruel to her own students, but she isn’t a pushover either. “I really think kids have to work hard,” she said. “If kids don’t have to think, they don’t grow. You have to challenge everybody.”
Garner said that it felt good to be named the Educator of the Year at Hines, though she noted there are many good teachers at the middle school. “It was nice to be acknowledged by the staff and the people at Hines,” she said.
Burns High School teacher Eric Ersch’s interest in art began while attending his Southern California high school. He enrolled in ceramics and art classes. “That’s where all the surfers hung out,” he said with a grin.
However, it would be a number of years before Ersch would put his interest in art to work for him.
About 20 years later, he moved to Burns with the intention of raising and training bird dogs. Along the way he obtained his master’s in art at San Diego State University and a master’s degree in teaching at Western Oregon University.
While at WOU, Ersch’s thesis was to design the fine arts curriculum at BHS in such a way to meet state standards. When he started teaching at BHS, he helped start the ceramics, construction and wood shop classes.
Ersch has taught at BHS for nine years, and now concentrates on arts and crafts classes. This includes ceramics, which is popular with students. “I have to turn folks away at the door,” he said.
As a student himself, Ersch said he had little interest in formal schooling. “I’ll quote Mark Twain here,” he said. “I did my best not to let school get in the way of my education.” As a young man he enjoyed traveling to different parts of the world and experiencing diverse cultures.
Ersch brings this perspective to the classroom as well stressing the cultural connection between art and society. Art classes aren’t just about creating art. “I use making art as a carrot,” he said. One recent student assignment involved writing an essay to define an art movement. Students also had to select an artist from that movement as well as one of the artist’s artworks. Students then had to connect the artwork to the culture and politics of that period in history. “It pushes their brain a little bit,” he said. “I end up teaching history and English, too.”
This is Ersch’s last year at BHS. After the school year ends, he’ll move to Redding, Calif., where his fiancé lives. They will get married and then eventually move to a warm coastline, he noted. “It’s time to move back to the beach,” he said.
Ersch was surprised to be named the BHS Educator of the Year but pleased that his colleagues honored him in this way. “I’d like to thank the community for letting me work with such wonderful young people,” he said. “If there will be anything I miss about leaving Burns, it’ll be these kids.”