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Recent Outstanding Educator Award Recipients

The Outstanding Educator Awards recognize teachers who have demonstrated excellence in teaching the humanities and who encourage the humanities to be an important part of their students’ lives. Each of the recipients, selected from a pool of nominees from across the state, receive a $2,000 fellowship to further their professional development in the humanities, and their schools receive $1,500 for humanities programs and materials.

The 2017 recipients of the Outstanding Educator Award are:

Connie Lopez-Fink, 5th Grade Social Studies, University School of Nashville

Connie has been teaching for ten years, and the committee loved one of her lesson plans where students used the African-American Green Book to plan travel through the Jim Crow South. The Green Book was a travel guide published in the early Twentieth Century to help African-Americans find restaurants and hotels during the Jim Crow era. Connie will use her professional development award to attend the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute. "The institute's objectives align perfectly with my colonial-to-American Revolution unit...I am particularly interested in learning how connections are made to present-day America."

Julie Golden, Spanish, Oak Ridge High School

Julie has been teaching thirteen years and utilizes an anthropological approach to language learning. " is important that students in my class have not only a knowledge of the language structure, syntax, and vocabulary, but also a cultural appreciation and connection to native is my professional obligation to create these opportunities..." Her methods are innovative, employing Skype interviews with survivors of the Salvadoran civil war and developing student-driven projects partnering with the micro-financing service She will use her professional development award to solidify educational connections with a sister school in Peru.

Benjamin Fowler, English-Theatrical Literature/Performance, Oak Ridge High School

Benjamin has been teaching ten years, and his philosophy of teaching mirrors the mission of Humanities Tennessee: "My goal is not the focus on immediate response in learning, but [for my students] to examine examine the complex issues affecting them." Benjamin brings this philosophy to bear in all of his lessons, whether compositional or performance driven. One of his students explored the themes of William Faulkner through modern dance. His professional development award will allow him to attend the world renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada.

Scot Smith, Library-Media, Robertsville Middle School

Scot has been teaching twentyfive years, and the committee, simply put, wanted to clone him. Sponsor of a Diversity Club, nationwide expert on YA literature, puppeteer, and a hero to fellow teachers and students alike, Scot has made his mark in education. His colleagues, administrators, students and their parents, all describe Scot's uncanny ability to select the right book for the right child at the right time. His professional development award will allow him to attend book festivals in Charleston and Hattiesburg, as well as the American Library Association Conference in Denver. It goes without saying, he's also pretty great at stretching a dime.

Charles Elston, General Music, Dickson Middle School

A classroom veteran of twenty-three years, Chuck is an invaluable asset to the community of Dickson County. "While schools divvy up knowledge into distinct subjects, we in general music class unpack, explore, and reconnect knowledge, since music is an expression of the total human experience. In doing so, students routinely engage in discussions and classwork that incorporate history, sociology, psychology, physics, civics, economics, and music appreciation." His approach is evident in his lesson plans where students explore the disciplines through the lens of the arts. His professional development award will provide access to graduate level studies in music history and sociology through Berklee College of Music.

Rachel Turner, Economics, Government, and History, Hamilton County High School

Though a classroom teacher for only seven years, Rachel has an impressive track record of results and an innovative approach to classroom teaching. Her school is nontraditional, primarily serving an at-risk population. As Rachel says, "I have to figure out 25 different ways to motivate 25 different students to excel academically and personally. I love watching some of my students com in on day one as uninspired teenagers and leave as inquisitive, knowledgeable citizens." Her professional development award will allow her an independent study of immigration, culture, and the effects of WWII on the West Coast of the United States. Her school award will allow her to procure classroom materials and provide professional training for an ongoing classroom oral history project. 

The 2016 recipients of the Outstanding Educator Awards are:

Geoffrey M. Smith, History, St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School, Sewanee. Geoffrey has been a classroom teacher for five years and will use his Professional Development Award to do place-based research on the life and work of James Agee, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Death in the Family. Traveling from Knoxville to Exeter and points in between, Geoffrey will tweet live updates to his students and later produce live and digital programs to share insights from his travels. His School Award will be used for public programming during the Day of the Book events at St. Andrews School.

Michael G. Robinson, Human Geography, Houston Central High School, Germantown. Michael has been a classroom teacher for twenty-one years and will use his Professional Development Award to travel to Krakow, Poland where he will tour Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oscar Schindler’s factory and museum, as well as embark on thematic tours of the city to study everyday life during the war and under Communism. His School Award be used to acquire materials for the classroom.

Suzanne Costner, Library-Media Specialist, Fairview Elementary School, Maryville. Suzanne, who has been a classroom teacher and librarian for twenty-eight years, has the distinction of becoming the first school librarian recommended to receive an Outstanding Educator Award. She plans to use her Professional Development Award to attend the American Library Association Annual Conference in Atlanta. Her School Award will support acquisition of materials to update the library’s collection to more closely align with recent updates to state curriculum standards.

Dr. Hunter M. Brimi, English, Hardin Valley Academy, Knoxville. Hunter has taught in Knox County for seventeen years and will use his Professional Development Award to participate in “Write to Teach,” a five day conference sponsored by the Bay Area Writing Project. His School Award will be used to improve the American History collections of his school library.

Jane Sasser, English, Oak Ridge High School, Oak Ridge. Jane is a thirty-one year classroom veteran who plans to use her Professional Development Award to travel to England visiting the Lake District and London in order to study Wordsworth, Coleridge, the Brontes, John Keats, and the collections of the British Museum. Her School Award will purchase classroom sets of novels by Wodehouse, Doerr, Rhys, Haddon, and Alvarez.

Brian Smith, Social Studies, Jefferson Middle School, Oak Ridge. Brian has been teaching for fourteen years and plans to visit Colonial Williamsburg and attend professional development workshops at the Mariner’s Museum. His School Award will be used to create a maritime collection of books and materials for the school library. 


The 2015 recipients of the Outstanding Educator Awards are:

Mike Andrews, Art, Montgomery Central High School, Clarksville.  Mike has been a classroom teacher for twenty-five years and will use his professional development award to study American artists at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkasas, as well as American metal work at the Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis. He will use his school award to acquire humanities resources for the classroom.

"Andrews introduced me to an array of influential artists and their work. His history lessons were more than names and dates; they analyzed current events and the philosophical underpinnings that influenced each artist and their work…His methods could serve as a model for others to follow in the field.”—a former student, from Letter of Recommendation

Marisa Dore, 8th grade U.S. History, Charlotte Middle School, Charlotte .  Marisa has been a classroom teacher for five years and will use her professional development award to travel to a variety of Tennessee museums focusing on state history, specifically focusing on the State of Franklin and antebellum slavery. Her school award will go toward the purchase of humanities materials for the classroom. 

"History is not stagnant. History is full of mysteries and discoveries. History is full of mistakes and victories. History is like teaching.”—from the nominee’s Statement of Philosophy of Teaching 

Matt Marlatt, English, Stewart’s Creek High School, Smyrna.  Matt has been a classroom teacher for nineteen years and will use his professional development award to travel to Boston and Washington D.C. in order to study the Early Colonial and Revolutionary Period in history and literature. Sites of research will include Boston Harbor, Bunker Hill, Old North Church, Boston Common, The Smithsonian Museums, Library of Congress, and National Archives among others. His school award will support the creation of a humanities library for the school library. 

"Matt is one of those teachers that make a lasting impact on all of his students. In fact, Matt makes a lasting impact on all people he meets...I, as all good teachers do, stole many ideas from Matt! I loved his inclusion of music when he taught The Crucible. His imaginative and involving activities (the creation of sample Facebook pages for various literary characters; his Socratic seminars on novels; his annotated posters for small group discussions, etc.) reveal his love of teaching and his love of his students’ love for learning.”—a fellow teacher’s Letter of Recommendation

Linda Moss Mines, History, Girls Preparatory School, Chattanooga. Linda has been a classroom teacher for twenty-seven years and will use her school award to embark upon an intergenerational, community wide oral history project involving students from GPS and East Side Elementary School who will work with civic leaders and older citizens to reflect on Chattanooga history, specifically issues the city faced fifty years ago during the Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of the Vietnam War. Her professional development awardwill support consulting with advisors from the National Archives, Library of Congress, VA, and the Cathedral School for Girls and Sidwell Friends regarding best practices for the project.    

"By design, the exploration of the Humanities scaffolds one’s ability to ask questions, to read and listen intently, to respond with accuracy using specific examples that enhance understanding and then to pose the next question for consideration. It is one of the mysteries of human existence that some of our most pressing issues have no single answer; in reality, few questions regarding our existence stand alone...A recent article by Harvard Business Journal noted that most employees are not terminated due to lack of technical skills but are, instead, terminated for inability to work with others in a collaborative environment that centers on clarity of communication. In my world, the humanities provide that clarity of thought and communication.” –from the teacher’s Statement of the Value of an Education in the Humanities

Carmen Noel, Visual Art, LEAD Academy High School, Nashville.  Carmen has been a classroom teacher for six years and will use her professional development award to attend the Books as Idea Generators workshop at Penland School of Crafts. The workshop focuses on visual journals for artists, specifically how to utilize the sketchbook as a medium for visual analysis. Her school award will allow her students to visit Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in order to utilize the museum’s collection to apply the content of the Books as Idea Generators workshop in a classroom unit.

"She deliberately designs units that allow students to express themselves, honor their backgrounds, and consider their place in the larger world, while learning how to critique other artists’ work as well as their own…In many charter high schools, a four-year art program is not an option. We find, however, that Carmen’s leadership of our Art program is an invaluable part of the LEAD curriculum.”—LEAD Dean of Instruction, from the Letter of Nomination 

Heidi Saunders, K-5 Art, George Whitten Elementary, Hendersonville.  Heidi has been a classroom teacher for sixteen years and will use her professional development award to visit a number of art museums in Washington D.C. including the Hirschhorn, Smithsonian Museums, National Geographic Museum, Freer Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery. 

"My fourth-grade students and I look at images of Greek Architecture and discuss how it reflects the culture of the peoples at the time, how it was created, and how these ideologies still influence our modern society. This lesson reinforces the students’ study of civics in fourth-grade social studies and the role of the Greeks in developing democracy.”—from the Nominee’s Statement of Methods of Teaching


The 2014 recipients of the Outstanding Educator Awards were:

  • Brinn Dalton teaches history and geography at Hixson High School in Chattanooga. This summer, he will use his professional development funding to travel to Turkey for a nine day study tour of the country. Along with resources acquired with his school award funding, he will establish a library and classroom exhibit during a unit including Turkish and Middle Eastern history and geography.

"What drives Mr. Dalton as an educator is his own sense of wonder and awe he derives from life. Curiosity is the model he lives by and what, I can only imagine, gives him the sense he must share what he finds in the world with others. That is what I took away from his teaching, what stuck, what mattered...[He] took a gamble asking me to write this letter for him...I was always the long shot, and he invested his time in me anyhow, not because he saw someone who needed a hand in life, but because he saw the interests I possessed and could help me to realize and cultivate them."--a former student.

  • Jan Loveday Dickens teaches art and social studies at Freedom Christian Academy in Knoxville. This summer, she will use her professional development award to study the influence of regional culture on the visual arts. She will visit museums across East Tennessee as well as study special collections related to East Tennessee art and history held by the museums of the Smithsonian Institution.

"My two older daughters have been blessed to have her for art for the past two years, where as they say "It's not arts & crafts; it's the history of art and what it means to our life and our life style." That speaks volumes to us...they get to have a hands on experience and the "why" behind it."--A parent of two of Jan's students


The 2013 recipients of the Outstanding Educator Awards were:

  • Jennifer Vasil teaches English at St. George’s Independent School in Collierville. This summer she’ll travel to Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon, and Monticello with the intention of creating a series of informational vlogs (video blogs) for students that combine discussions of literary works within their historical and artistic context. Jennifer will post these films to youtube so other students might benefit from her project as well. Her school award will bring the Gilder Lehrman travelling exhibit “Freedom: A History of Us” to Collierville. The exhibit will be enhanced by a series of speakers as well as a performance of “The Starry Road to Freedom: the Life of Frederick Douglass” by acclaimed actor/educator Darius Wallace.

  • Kim Blevins-Relleva teaches English and History at Abintra Montessori School in Nashville. An ardent student of the Holocaust, Kim will attend the 2013 Berlin Summer Academy, presented by the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation. The week long study tour is designed for US educators to “gain insight into many of the historical, social, religious, political, and economic factors that cumulatively resulted in the Holocaust.” Participants and panelists will include eyewitnesses, survivors, and representatives of the Berlin city government and local Jewish communities. Kim will use her school award to purchase more than 200 books for the middle school humanities curriculum.

  • Elizabeth Barry teaches French at Oak Ridge High School. This summer, she’ll participate in the French Traveler’s immersion program for French teachers. While in Lille and Brussels, she will participate in discussions of French history and politics, visit musuems, study the French academic system, discuss current immigration issues in France, and examine the evolution of the French family over time. Her school award will provide humanities materials, books and films for her classroom, and students will create a series of short, French language films.

  • Sylvia Woods teaches English and Writing at Oak Ridge High School, but this summer she’ll be studying the works of great Irish writers while traveling about the Emerald Isle. Over ten days, Woods will visit The Writers Museum, Sligo, and the Yeats Memorial Library. Her school’s award will support a four-week series of nonfiction writing classes led by Darnell Arnoult where students will create essays they will then transform into a variety of genres.

  • Ray Scheetz teaches 11th and 12th grade History at Franklin High School in Williamson County. Through his Professional Development Fellowship, he will travel to Ottawa and Quebec to visit sights, museums, and forts related to Canada’s development from its foray into international affairs, including the World Wars and the Cold War, through it’s domestic developments over the Twentieth Century. His school award will develop a community-wide program revolving around the Cold War. A museum educator will work with his students to create exhibits and students will deliver presentations on topics including Soviet propaganda and the Marshall Plan. The evening event will culminate with lectures by noted Vanderbilt scholars who have written extensively on the Cold War.

The Award nomination process is quite rigorous. Nominees write essays describing their philosophy and method of teaching as well as championing the value of an education in the humanities. The nominations include letters of recommendations from the teachers' supervisors, peers, parents, as well as from former students. You can read a former student's letter of recommendation for 2013 recipient, Elizabeth Barry, here.

Since the award program began in 1985 over $400,000 has been presented to 169 teachers and schools in Tennessee. Teachers across the state have been able to advance their knowledge of the humanities through traveling, attending seminars and workshops, and participating in research in order to better educate their students on the subjects of language, literature, history, philosophy, archeology, ethics and the history and criticism of the arts.