Sterling College Education Graduates Underwood ’08 and Harrison ’07 Win KSDE’s Horizon Award
For the second year in a row, two Sterling College education graduates have received the Horizon Award, given by the Kansas State Department of Education to recognize exemplary first-year educators. Alex Underwood ’08, a music teacher at Russell High School, and Taylor Harrison ‘07, a physical education teacher at Valley Center Middle School, are the fourth and fifth Sterling College graduates to receive the Horizon Award, a prestigious honor that is given to only 31 first-year teachers each spring.
Interim Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker said of this year’s Horizon Award winners: “These first-year educators have shown themselves to be tireless advocates for Kansas students. They are truly making a difference in classrooms across the state.” This is high praise, but Underwood and Harrison’s college professors are not surprised at their winning such an honor. “Alex is a wonderful example of the Sterling Spirit. I’m sure he is an excellent teacher and a wonderful mentor for his students,” said Diane DeFranco-Kling, senior associate professor in the Sterling College theatre department.
Associate Professor of Exercise Science Mary Ver Steeg said of Harrison, “I’m not surprised. The moment she stepped in front of a classroom her personality and her focus just came out, came alive. She really has a heart for kids.”
The two young teachers are open about their passion for teaching. “I love working with my students and challenging them to become better musicians, students and people,” said Underwood. “My goals for my students may seem lofty and far-fetched, but I think these things are incredibly important. I work practically toward these goals every single day.”
Harrison even loves the ups and downs of teaching middle schoolers. “Every day is a new adventure. It definitely never gets boring.”
Harrison “decided to become a teacher because two of my high school teachers helped me through a very difficult time of my life. From that I felt the desire to work with youth, and education felt like the right answer.” Underwood felt the call of the subject matter first. “I wanted to conduct choirs, and most choir conductors are in the education field. Little did I know I would fall in love with teaching, not ‘just’ conducting choirs.”
Both teachers credit their college professors for preparing them for both the academic and emotional challenges of teaching. “Sterling College not only helped me become an educator, it prepared me for obstacles that might arise during my first year of teaching,” said Harrison. “SC helped me be confident in my own skills as a teacher.”
“With tons of experience and knowledge, each of the education professors modeled good teaching in their classrooms,” added Underwood. “I could go on and on about how much respect I have for these people and how much they taught me in my four years at Sterling.”
In much the same way, the College’s education professors like to brag on their students. “We take pride in the accomplishments of our graduates,” said Dr. Gladys Ritterhouse, chair of the Sterling Teacher Education Program (STEP). “These STEP graduates successfully combine pedagogy and content to provide successful classroom experiences for their students. They model the servant leadership and concern for each student’s achievement that is at the core of excellent teaching.”
Dr. Ritterhouse is not just speaking of Underwood and Harrison. In the eight years the Horizon Awards have being given, three other Sterling graduates have received the honor. The first recipient, Sarah (Koehn)Tucker ’03, teaches theatre in the Andover School District, and Professor DeFranco-Kling has high praise for her: “I have had the privilege of visiting her classroom. She is loved and respected by her students, and her theatre productions have a reputation for quality. Her students are blessed to have such a capable and experienced person leading them into the future.”
Last year two other Sterling graduates, Andrew Wesner ’07 and Maeghan Bishop ’07, were named as Horizon Award winners. When this year’s Horizon winners were announced, Bishop wrote, “I want to congratulate the STEP department on two more Horizon awards! I know that individual teachers work hard for such recognition, but every one of your graduates owes a great deal to the excellent training and enthusiasm we received as part of our education.”
These teachers are the product of excellent training in both education and their subject matter: of the five Horizon winners, two teach theatre; one teaches music; one math; and one physical education. There are also other SC graduates who are receiving less well-known honors, such as Jennifer Branscum ‘04, who received the December 2009 Good Apple Award, chosen by the Wichita USD 259 principals. Branscum is a special education teacher specializing in autism.
Taylor Harrison, one of this year’s Horizon Award teachers, said, “I want to continue to grow and learn as an educator so I can provide the best learning environment for each of my students.” It seems she is not alone among STEP graduates in this attitude.
And for that, the Sterling Teacher Education Program is truly proud.