James Harris, a high school English teacher from Soldotna, was named the 2017 Alaska Teacher of the Year on Tuesday during a surprise ceremony at his school on the Kenai Peninsula.
Education officials on Tuesday lauded Harris as a passionate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher, who they said easily connects with students and leaves a lasting impression.
"He inspires hope, he ignites that imagination in students and he just instills a love of learning in all of the students he comes across," said his boss, Soldotna High School Principal Tony Graham. "He's very deserving of this honor."
Harris, 35, has taught at Soldotna High, in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, for seven years. He previously taught college classes in Fairbanks, Kansas and Colorado.
Harris said he decided to shift focus and become a high school teacher while in the middle of work on his doctorate in English literature in Idaho. He interrupted that program, moved back to Alaska, enrolled at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, and instead earned his master's degree in teaching here.
Harris was a student teacher at Soldotna High eight years ago — publishing an anthology during that time — and said he hasn't looked back.
"It's been fantastic ever since," said Harris, who lives in town with his wife and their two children. "I really felt like I could make much more of a difference in a high school classroom and I realized that's where I really needed to be."
Harris said his classes spend a lot of time having strong discussions about their assigned readings, including "Moby-Dick" most recently. He said he hopes to create a classroom environment where students are OK with being wrong. He encourages his students to understand each reading's narrators and their points of view, even if the students may not agree with what the characters think.
His goal is for it to teach them empathy. He also wants his students to leave the classroom with curiosity and a deeper sense of the world.
"I hope they leave my classroom not just able to communicate with the rest of the world, but with this instilled sense to constantly want to learn more about it," he said.
Harris was among 12 Alaska teachers nominated for the Teacher of the Year title this year. A small committee forwarded his name as the top contender to Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson, who accepted the recommendation.
As the state's Teacher of the Year, Harris will serve as a member of the commissioner's teacher advisory group and may be asked to speak at education conferences and participate in statewide education working groups, according to the state department.
Harris is also now in the running national Teacher of the Year as Alaska's official nominee.
Johnson announced Tuesday that the Alaska runner-up also came from the Peninsula district — Stephanie Cronin, a math and engineering teacher at Seward High School. She was named the Alternate Alaska Teacher of the Year.
Cronin has taught at Seward High for 17 years. Cronin will serve as the Alaska Teacher of Year if Harris receives the national title, the education department said.