If the words “inspiring, unforgettable teacher” summon images of a Hollywood hero, read a few of the glowing nominations below for 2019 Gila County Teacher of the Year. Mark your calendar and join family and friends to applaud when these exceptional educators are recognized June 18 at the Gila County Board of Supervisors meetings simultaneously held in Globe and Payson.

“This year brought a record number of nominees, and I’m proud to have a chance to recognize two dozen of our finest teachers,” said Gila County Superintendent of Schools Roy Sandoval.

“I hope students, family and friends of these teachers will pack the Board of Supervisors room to join us the morning of June 18 and praise the dedication of these Gila County Teachers — representing schools from Payson and Pine-Strawberry, to Young and Tonto Basin; Miami and on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.”

Exceptional educators

Dean Pederson, Pine-Strawberry School — A teacher for more than five decades, Dean also volunteers for activities and programs that make a positive difference in students’ lives and in the surrounding community. A crisis intervention specialist, Special Olympics mentor and founder of the Archery Team, he’s also a school counselor and peer counselor.

Renae Short has taught math at Payson High School for five years, serves as head of the Mathematics Department and the Special Education department. She provides freshmen students with the transition into high school — going the extra mile as a tutor on Saturdays. Renae is an IEP coordinator and is one of the Link Crew sponsors. She proudly communicates with parents on a regular basis regarding building relationships with families.

Rachael Oakeson teaches first grade at Payson Christian School — nominated for her “kind and loving spirit that spreads throughout the school. She is very active in the community and attends the Ponderosa Baptist Church in Payson. She has a master’s in education with specialty in reading and has been teaching for nine years both in the Phoenix Valley and Payson.”

George Conley received high praise, and this well-written nomination, from his 9th-grade art student, “Entering the art room on any given day will instantly give you an idea of the creativity that room inspires: murals painted onto bricks, paintings hung up to dry, ‘good deeds’ strung up on the Peace Train; scattered remains of colorful messes. Such is the teaching of Mr. Conley: allow for all students, no matter how stubborn, to unleash the creative lion inside and appreciate art for what it is — art! Mr. Conley gave me a great appreciation for pieces of art throughout history, as well as everyday art I would otherwise have passed by and overlooked. His classroom allows me and others the creativity of growing children … art makes the world a more colorful place and pieces should be acknowledge for their true value — and Mr. Conley gives us many reasons to do so. Art is the way history is communicated, thousands of years of history contained within single splotches of paint; and in architecture, sculpture, and tapestries.”

Barbara Warren teaches at Tonto Basin Elementary and serves the school with integrity. She is on the community fire board and donates her time and energy to making decisions that will strengthen Tonto Basin. Beyond their daily doses of education, students receive understanding and encouragement. Her students feel a sense of belonging; parents, too — broaching concerns, because they know her reputation for being quick and creative in resolving issues.

Jennifer Hunt teaches reading, social studies and life skills at Young Public School to grades 7-8; also serving as the freshman AG, and helping administratively at the school. She is an FFA Advisor for high school students. Summer off? Not for faculty such as Jennifer, who spends her summer taking students to leadership conferences and camps. Students respect and admire this teacher from daily interactions and her readiness to help. Active as a volunteer with the community council, and leading activities for girls in church, she’s also a liaison with home schooling families — making them feel welcome as part of the school environment.

Halli Kinnick teaches geometry and algebra II at Payson High School. According to her nomination, she is “a great mentor and helps other teachers within the school. She is involved with students and interacts regularly with parents letting them know how their child is performing. She volunteers for several different extracurricular activities to benefit the school and community. Her students love her!”

Scott Davidson, Rim Country Middle School, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade science — “Mr. Davidson is absolutely committed to the success of his students; he’s spent countless hours taking his students on outdoor adventures. He has an impressive knowledge and work ethic; faith, and profound concern regarding his students. He’s a shining example of teaching done right, and he’s changing the world one child at a time.”

Andrew Fiala, according to one nomination, “manages to make physics fun to understand and learn about” for his Payson High students and “he has a sense of humor, which is great when teaching such a stressful and hard subject. He aims to improve every single student … always informative, and taught at a quick, but understanding, pace. He provides notes for his students to study and he is always willing to help a struggling student. Students know his expectations, and they follow them. He inspires students to work hard and stay on task.” Another vote for Andrew Fiala noted, “He pushes his students to succeed, he gives challenging yet possible work — pushes his students to think critically — and really try.”

Ginger Liddell “changed my whole outlook on life” at Payson High, wrote her nominator, “she motivates me every single day. When I first started DECA I didn’t think I would be all that interested but as classes went on I fell in love with DECA and everything that came with it, and honestly, I don’t think I would have if it wasn’t for Mrs. Liddell telling me every day “you can do this!” She is the first teacher who made me believe in myself — and also believed in me.” Another wrote: “Mrs. Liddell is always looking for a way to improve the campus and how students view it. She talks to students about what makes the campus good and what we should do to change it for the better. Not only does she care for her students, but everyone else, too — she wants them to go to school in an amazing atmosphere where they can learn easily and succeed. She’s one of the best, most caring teachers I’ve ever had.” And a third nominator wrote, “Every student loves to hear her ‘amazing singing voice’ on their birthday! She could have a day where everything goes wrong, and still manage to tell a funny story or a joke … she loves to assign weird projects that make us get out of our comfort zone and talk to people in class that we don’t normally talk to.”

Chad Gower “truly wants to help students learn, especially when they show effort. He has motivated me to learn more in history and simply just to work harder in all my classes — not just his class. He makes his class interesting and is always trying his best at helping everyone learn in the best environment. I also know him outside of school and he is always trying to give the school a good image to the public. He is one of the most responsible, caring, kind role models anyone could look up to.”

Brittney Hancock, one nomination states, “at Payson High School I am surrounded by many great adults, one teacher who helped me the most is Brittney Hancock, also known as ‘Profesora,’ our Spanish teacher, and she has helped countless students learn a new language — which is difficult, and so is her class.” Another student wrote, “She is truly dedicated to her field of work, as well as her students. She has outdone herself in her methods of teaching, truly devoted to the growth of her students.” And a letter suitable for framing, “She does an amazing job at teaching one of the hardest classes I’ve taken in high school. As you start to spend more time with her you realize that her rules and expectations are there to make you a better student, and a better person. She’s very good at preparing all of her students for our future: she’s honest with us and expects every student’s best effort. She expects you to be independent, but will always be there to help when you need it. I have grown to love her as a teacher and a mentor.”

Marsha Fitzhugh, agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor at Payson High, earned this high praise, “Being a teacher for any subject is difficult and requires hours of work — being the FFA advisor is a mile beyond the required amount of work! Mrs. Fitzhugh spends hours outside the classroom working to better the FFA program; gives up weekends with her family to allow us to experience different aspects of agriculture and takes us to conferences and competitions. Even on weekends she returns to the agriculture building to feed the animals; everything she does represents the passion she possesses for our school and our program. She’s an amazing teacher, and an even better person!”

Editor’s note: Excerpts above were edited to fit available space; Payson High nominees also include Bud Evans, Denver White, Roger Childers, Laura Trivillan, Cynthia Mitchell, Mark Guthrie and Kyle Headstream.

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