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Missourians take two of five spots in National Teachers Hall of Fame

Updated: 2013-04-22T19:51:40Z

By JILL SEDERSTROM

Special to The Star

Hall of Fame isn’t just for athletes. Two Missouri teachers have also earned the honor.

Darryl Johnson, an English teacher at Smithville High School and Beth Vernon, an earth and space science teacher at Brittany Hill Middle School in the Blue Springs School District, were two of five educators nationwide to be named to the National Teachers Hall of Fame for 2013.

“It’s very unusual for two (to be) from the same state,” said Carol Strickland, executive director of the National Teachers Hall of Fame.

Both teachers were recently surprised with the news of their win during all-school assemblies.

“I was just so shocked,” Vernon said of the honor.

As Hall of Fame inductees, both teachers will be honored at a reception in Washington, D.C., in May and will be formerly inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame during a ceremony in June in Emporia, Kan. They will also receive $1,000 worth of educational materials, a gold lapel pin and ring, a bronze sculptured bell tower, a $10,000 technology fellowship and digital equipment for their classroom.

“They have a lot of opportunities to talk about why they teach and things they would like to be changed,” said Strickland. “They do have a voice from being an inductee and in the Hall of Fame.”

The National Teachers Hall of Fame is an honor given only to veteran elementary and secondary teachers who have at least 20 years of experience in the classroom.

Strickland said she couldn’t say exactly why the selection committee ultimately chose the two Missouri teachers out of a pool of 21 semi-finalists but said both teachers were examples of excellence in the classroom.

“People gravitated toward them,” she said.

Beth Vernon

Beth Vernon’s goal is to be a part of the dinner table conversation every night. The way the 28-year veteran teacher sees it, if her students are still thinking about and talking about the day’s lesson to their family at the dinner table each night, she has made an impact.

“The big idea is that you want it to transfer to their lives,” she said.

To do this, her lessons go beyond lectures and memorization. She creates interactive, thought-provoking lessons that inspire students to do critical thinking about the world and how it works. For instance, for her students to truly understand the Fukushima power plant accident and its impact on the world, they have to first know about climate change, mining and natural resources.

Many of her lessons incorporate music in an attempt to solidify her messages into the brain. So, when her students hear Carole King’s famous “I Feel the Earth Move,” they aren’t just thinking about the catchy tune, they are also thinking about plate tectonics.

“If it is really pleasurable and there’s a lot of dopamine and you can put something pleasurable with your big idea, they are going to keep thinking about it, they are going to talk about it,” she said.

That’s just what former student Megan Clark has done for 15 years. Clark is now a doctor, but in a letter she wrote to the selection committee she said she still remembers the elements of the periodic table and the definition of plate tectonics even all these years later.

“The reason that I can remember is Ms. Vernon’s unique approach to learning, her many talents that she generously shares with her students, and her dedication to reaching not just most of the class but every single student,” she writes. “She always made her classroom come alive by creating unique, hands-on learning, which made the information tangible.”

Dallas Truex, principal at Brittany Hill Middle School, says he even turns to Vernon, who was formerly a Disney American Teacher in 2000, for advice about how to teach new concepts or ideas to other teachers at the school.

“She’s definitely someone who thinks outside of the box,” he says, “She is her own teaching encyclopedia.”

Truex described Vernon as a brilliant professional educator who is always willing to go above and beyond to help a student learn. While Vernon herself may have been surprised by her selection to the Hall of Fame, those who know her weren’t.

“I was very confident she was going to win, to be honest with you,” Truex said.

Darryl Johnson

Darryl Johnson doesn’t have high standards just for his students, he has them for himself as well.

The veteran teacher of 21 years said he was first inspired to become a teacher by one of his own great teachers in college. The professor was funny and relatable but had very high expectations for his students.

“I found myself rising to the challenge of his expectations,” Johnson said. “That was a pivotal point for me in my undergraduate time.”

He has tried to incorporate these same ideas into his own classroom and said he believes it is important that students and teachers have mutually high expectations of one another. Johnson, who also holds the title of Missouri’s 2007 Teacher of the Year, said he believes failure often has an unfair reputation and is a necessary acquaintance for most people.

He tries to motivate his students to achieve their best by giving them his best in return.

“Every day you have go in there and show them that you care,” Johnson says.

Principal Rudy Papenfuhs said Johnson’s dedication to his students is what attracts many students to his classes and inspires them to sign up for his courses again and again.

“Darryl Johnson comes prepared to teach every single day,” he says. “He understands not only the content but also the learner.”

Johnson has already made a positive impact on student Laney Willard, who described Johnson in her letter to the selection committee as a humble, humorous and passionate teacher who takes the time to make each student feel unique and valued and inspires them to achieve whatever they set their minds to do.

“To me Mr. Johnson has emerged as more than just an educator: he has become a fellow writer, a mentor, a listening ear, even a friend and ultimately one of my heroes,” she writes. “I can give no higher praise than that.”

The news that he had earned a place in the National Teacher’s Hall of Fame came as a complete surprise to Johnson, who says that although he had filled out the paperwork a few months earlier he hadn’t given it much thought.

“I just work every day,” he said. “I didn’t even think about it.”

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