For 20 years, BP has been recognizing Alaska’s exceptional teachers — like these five teachers from small communities around the state — with the BP Teachers of Excellence program. Since 1995, they’ve recognized 650 teachers. Click here to nominate another deserving teacher. New this year, you can also nominate a principal, school nurse, teaching assistant or other school staff member for the Educational Allies Award, recognizing the unsung heroes in our schools.

Madrigal Brown, Nuiqsut Trapper School
2016 BP Teacher of Excellence
Years in teaching: 4

Every August, Madrigal Brown is known as the “mean teacher” at Nuiqsut Trapper School, for her strict rules and the fact there are no Movie Fridays. But by the time the last bell rings in May, students leave with increased literacy and math skills, and the eagerness to learn.

Although she does not consider herself a “fun teacher,” Brown has been instrumental in helping her students leapfrog in reading ability, and all of her students now meet or surpass national norms in math when just two years ago some were having trouble counting on their hands.

“Parents entrust their kids to us for an education; we have to put learning first. It’s a gift and important, and we need to make it a priority,” she said. Her overall goal is to help children grow into adults who will better serve their community. “The kids know they owe it to their parents and their ancestors.”

When Brown started teaching, her hallway had an old welcome poster dating back to the ’80s, something kitschy and cartoonish, something she found out of a place for such a unique, cool school. So she replaced it with an Inupiaq-themed collage and started incorporating cultural history and literature into lessons. Initial writing prompts may be about camping and hunting, for example, and advance to imaginative essays that take students back in time.

In addition to her teaching, Brown volunteers with a cheerleading squad, Trapper Tuaviggich (“people who cheer”), and created a holiday shop that gives students a brief break from winter studies as they learn budgeting and the value of earning money, not just receiving money, to spend in the store.

Going forward, Brown is excited about a school booster club that will be involved in community service and an upcoming reading incentive program. As this “mean teacher” says, “Once you find the book that hooks you, you are in for life.”

Cherry Eckland, Harborview Elementary School
2016 BP Teacher of Excellence
Years in teaching: 26

“I can’t do it.”

“You can’t do it yet. In a few weeks you be will be able to. You don’t have to have all the answers right now.”

That’s how Cherry Eckland guides her students at Harborview Elementary School in Juneau, in a multi-level classroom full of community, where all ideas are valued. She purposely spends time developing relationships, combining social skills with lessons so that neither is distinct.

Rules, for example, are established through a weeklong process. Instead of receiving a list of instructions on what or what not to do, each student shares thoughts on how they will behave, treat each other and so forth. As a group, the students revise their suggestions, whittling them down to a short list which all agree upon.

“When kids are taking ownership for their own learning, intrinsically, not because they are told or asked, they feel like they have a say,” said Eckland.

She takes the same approach to lessons. “Oh this is how I solved it,” a student might respond to a multiplication problem. “Mind if I share this idea?” Eckland would ask, giving it a nickname such as “Sam’s Strategy.” Eventually, the strategy is called by its official arithmetic property, but the children have learned a math concept as if they had created it.

A Lego Robotics coach and a coordinator for Read Across America, Eckland loves to hold game nights for families, where kids and parents battle it out in Multiplication War or Go Fish for 10.

Trained in responsive classroom techniques, she strives to honor her students’ thinking so that each may value not just one’s own thought processes, but the ideas of others. When the growth mindset is positive, the children excel.

“If students are feeling comfortable and valued, they are certainly willing to take more risks with their learning,” she said.

Mindy Jacobsen, Nenana City Public School
2016 BP Teacher of Excellence
Years in teaching: 10

“There’s an app for that,” is now part of the lexicon. For the eighth graders in Mindy Jacobsen’s class at Nenana City Public School, it was a challenge they were issued. They devised edu@home, a digital planner that syncs to parents’ phones so everyone can know when assignments are due.

Trying to learn programming was more complex than anticipated but the class was able to participate in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge in the fall of 2015. “We’re hoping that UAA may be able to help with the app this summer,” Jacobsen said. “Ideally, I’d really like the kids to see the process and meet people in the field. I think it would be good for them to see what they are considering as a career.”

Using Project Lead the Way, national STEM curriculum that introduces kids to science and engineering, Jacobsen incorporates glogs (interactive graphical blogs) into lessons and chooses Prezi over PowerPoint with its usual point and clicks. “It’s the little things that amuse the junior high school students,” she noted, adding that kids are invested in the lesson as a result.

“People think I’m crazy because I like junior high school level, but I am never bored, the students are always entertaining,” said Jacobsen. “The students are fun, full of energy.”

Her 8th graders used Autodesk to design a playground, from swings to monkey bars, printing pieces to scale on a 3D printer. (Jacobsen hopes to acquire funding to build an actual playground based on their designs.) After school, she oversees a robotics group with elementary kids using Lego systems and older kids learning automation through vex kits.

“We see each other every day for two years; it becomes a family,” Jacobsen said. “They get to know me very well, and what I expect: when it’s time for fun, and when it’s time to get a lot of work done. They come in wondering how they will be able to do it all and become amazed they did something they didn’t think they could.”

Rob Parsons, Sitka High School
2016 BP Teacher of Excellence
Years in teaching: 23

Rob Parsons has been known to set his desk on fire and bark like a dog, all in the name of science. A chemistry and physics teacher at Sitka High School since 1993, he understands how visceral reactions aid in forming long-term memories and knows his pupils learn best when applying concepts.

“Everyone takes chemistry in high school and essentially remembers nothing,” Parsons said. “And physics is something you have to doto learn.” He introduces the kinetic theory of gases, for example, not by pedantic lectures but by flowing cold water over hot water that has stopped boiling, and the water boils again.

He asks his students to visualize being trapped on a different planet with just a shoe, a shoestring of known length, and a stopwatch. How could one calculate the gravitational acceleration? They can provide the answer. (Hint: it has to do with Newton’s laws.)

Complicated material is often condensed in primary school, but Parsons makes it clear to his students: “You have been lied to, and I will lie to you quite often over the course of the year to simplify things. But by the end of the year, these lies will be corrected.”

He can vary his teaching style based on grade level, or even the day, and what appears erratic is actually organized chaos. Parson talks fast, moves slowly, and will dance when asked (he has performed in the local performance of “The Nutcracker”). He will also return a grade quickly and without judgment.

“Sitka High is remarkable,” he stressed, adding that without them, he would not be able to teach as he does. “A special shout-out goes to Scott McArthur and Kent Bovee.”

Although his courses are suited for college prep, Parson doesn’t just want to pass on knowledge but a work ethic — the habit of taking responsibility for oneself. When five of the school’s recent top graduates are currently pursuing STEM degrees, with four at University of Alaska Fairbanks and one at Yale, something must have stuck.

Linda Richter, Kokhanok School
2016 BP Teacher of Excellence
Years in teaching: 33

For Linda Richter, teaching does not stop at the end of a school day; in fact, sometimes it’s just beginning. As coordinator of the online distance tutoring program for the Kokhanok School, she trains tutors to provide personalized lessons to students.

Shortly after the superintendent initiated the pilot program, Richter jumped on board, recruiting teacher candidates from various states. Accommodating different time zones, she has worked with almost 150 tutors in the last three years, including nine from the University of Alaska this school year.

“I can’t say enough of the fantastic tutors out of Oregon, Pennsylvania and Montana. But we are Alaska teachers. Teacher candidates in the state need to see what it’s like for our Bush kids too, which is a lot different than a classroom in Anchorage,” said Richter. “Because all of us win.”

As Richter explained, the student benefits by mastering specific skills that had previously given them trouble. Perhaps it’s making inferences in reading, or probability and statistics. In the process, the student learns to express him or herself while developing a relationship with a tutor.

The teacher candidate benefits, as the tutoring program may be his or her first encounter with a real student. Designing and providing personalized lessons in areas of weakness provides a valuable opportunity for a candidate just entering the field, she said.

“One of the things I always tell the tutors is to have fun with the kids. I can make learning fun by having fun,” said Richter. That means laughing, good-natured teasing, and saying something silly to make a serious topic relatable. “You have to find a way for the kids to connect to what you’re saying. Find out what they like, and in anything you try to teach, incorporate their personal experiences with the lessons.”

Click here to see all 31 Teachers of Excellence, chosen from more than 1,000 nominees, honored in 2016.

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This story is sponsored by BP, celebrating the teachers who make school memorable from the first days of kindergarten through the last semester of high school.

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with BP. Contact the special content editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.