COE graduates dominate Arizona top-teacher contest
Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Christine Marsh’s 22-year-old son, Porter, had a prescient moment several months ago after his mother was nominated for the 2016 Arizona Teacher of the Year by the Arizona Educational Foundation.
He predicted she would win the award, then promptly claimed the honor of accompanying her to Washington, D.C., next year when she and the other states’ top teachers are scheduled to meet President Obama. Marsh told Porter she thought she had little chance against Arizona’s myriad wonderful teachers.
“But I had him in my class, so when he said, ‘You’re going to win this,’ it wasn’t just (him speaking) as a son,” Marsh tearfully said Thursday after being named Arizona’s best classroom educator before an audience of 600 people at the AEF’s awards luncheon.
Marsh was among three Grand Canyon University College of Education alumni who placed in the top five in the rigorous competition, which began with about three dozen nominations of teachers across the state.
Now in her 24th year of teaching English at Chaparral High in the Scottsdale Unified School District, March earned a master’s in educational administration in October from GCU. She was joined in Thursday’s winner’s circle by Angelia Ebner, a fifth-grade teacher at Maricopa Elementary who has a 2008 master’s degree of education in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on reading from GCU, and Beth Snyder, a sixth-grade teacher at Akimel A-al Middle School, whose 2015 master’s degree from GCU is in educational administration.
Also among the finalists were Jennifer Anglin, an English teacher at Flowing Wells Junior High in Tucson, and Mike Vargas, a physics teacher at Pinnacle High in Phoenix.
“The College of Education has a long history of preparing the finest teachers,” COE Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade said. “This is a testament to the high quality of our students, the effectiveness of our programs and the excellence of our faculty. We are very proud of all the finalists and Christine on this well-deserved honor.”
Marsh, who teaches advanced-placement English to juniors and seniors at Chaparral, the same high school from which she graduated, accepted the award from the 2015 Arizona Teacher of the Year, John-David Bowman, a U.S. history teacher at Westwood High in Mesa.
“I’m overwhelmed with gratitude about the amazing opportunity that’s in front of me, and I hope to make you all proud,” said Marsh, who, in addition to receiving prizes that include $15,000 in cash, will compete for the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.
She and the other four finalists, known as “Ambassadors for Excellence,” will spend next year advocating for students and the teaching profession at dozens of educational, governmental, business and other meetings around Arizona.
A desire to change the world
Marsh said she became a teacher because she wanted to impact society. In her very first classroom, she took the advice of one of her favorite high school teachers, Mark Miller, who encouraged her to make her students feel special and told her, “Just close your door and teach. Focus on your students and their needs.”
Marsh still does that, but for the past almost 10 years she also has ventured beyond those four walls to speak out for education. She has been her school district’s representative at the Arizona Education Association (AEA), is a blogger for the Arizona K12 Center and joined the Arizona School Administrators Association. Marsh plans to run for a seat on the Paradise Valley Unified School District’s board because “I believe that I need to ‘walk the talk.’”
Marsh mentors new teachers, writes curriculum and has been voted by Chaparral students as the “Teacher of the Year” three times. She even has coached cross-country teams.
During a luncheon video, Marsh’s students described her as someone who cares about their future, is passionate and involved, and “taught me what type of politician I want to be when I get older.” Another said, “without Ms. Marsh, I would have an empty spot in my life.”
She enjoys demonstrating life’s bigger picture through classic literature. “Shakespeare is still around because he dealt in universal truths,” said Marsh, referring to the obligation of friends to each other and the dangers of ambition, among others. “I love helping students see universal truths, and the magic is they help me see universal truths as well.”
Marsh was ebullient with her thanks of people and organizations, among them Conrad Davis, Marsh’s sophomore English teacher, Chaparral Principal Gayle Holland, school superintendent Dr. David J. Peterson and other district officials. “They say ‘yes’ before they say ‘no,’” she said. “That’s amazingly powerful.”
Sheryl Temple, a GCU alumna and adjunct faculty member, had Marsh in two of her educational leadership courses. Temple called her a “mover and shaker.”
“She’s powerful. She knows what she’s doing, and she’s committed to the tenets of education that work,” said Temple, superintendent of Paradise Valley Christian Preparatory School.
Working locally to nationally to improve education
Ebner has been involved in state and national education issues through the AEA and the National Education Association and is passionate about getting other teachers certified through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
She is president of the Maricopa Education Association, has sat on her school’s site council and coached fitness classes for children.
Ebner was inspired to teach by her great-aunt Marie Ross, whose east Los Angeles classroom she visited as a child. “Her students seems so tough and scary … until they were in her room,” Ebner said. “They softened, embraced learning and let her teach them and talk to them as if they were her kids.”
When Ross died, she left Ebner a box of poems, notes, books and other items that have bolstered her own teaching.
“She knew before I did that this really would be my life’s work,” said Ebner, who has been teaching for 11 years. “I wanted to give students a safe place to come to school, a place where they could feel successful and loved. I realized that this was a way that I could make the world better.”
Ebner’s students described her in the video as smart, caring, nice and a cheerleader for them who is always available.
During her time at GCU, Ebner said she appreciated the interesting collaborations with other education students around the country. “It allowed me to come out of my Arizona-only bubble,” she said.
She, like Marsh, said there’s nothing like the feeling a teacher gets when the light bulb comes on in a student.
“When students finally grasp what it is you’re teaching them or apply something you have taught them to solve a problem in another context, that’s just amazing,” Ebner said.
Making sure all children feel valued
Snyder grew up with parents who were educators, in a home that “didn’t have a TV. We had books.” As an awkward adolescent, she needed a little extra understanding, reassurances that she was just fine. As a science teacher of tweens in Ahwatukee, Snyder said she offers that to her students.
“These kids really appreciate you treating them respectfully and as valuable people,” she said. “We all want to feel appreciated and have a sense of belonging. I try to find something to love about everyone.”
The most rewarding aspects of teaching, Snyder said, are the everyday new experiences and the new personalities and talents that emerge in her classroom each year. The icing on the cake is when a former student returns to school and tells her she made a difference in their life.
“These kids are going to be tomorrow’s scientists and doctors,” she said. “These kids are going to make a difference for us.”
Snyder, whose husband, T.J., is an assistant principal in the Tempe Union High School District, wanted to earn a master’s degree in leadership to do more in her field.
“I used to think the principal didn’t have as much impact as a teacher in a classroom, but I’ve worked for principals who were able to transform schools,” she said. “I want to do that.”
Named the 2015 Teacher of the Year in the Kyrene School District, Snyder has been teaching for eight years. She said her GCU experience was special because of the atmosphere of working together as a group.
“Just as children do, adults learn better together, and we are better off collaborating,” she said. “I think that’s where meaningful learning happens.”
Contact Janie Magruder at (602) 639-8018 or [email protected].