Mingus Union High School educator wins Teacher of the Year award

 Mingus Union High School math teacher Craig Mai

Mingus Union High School math teacher Craig Mai

On the night the Yavapai County Education Foundation crowned Mingus Union High School math teacher Craig Mai as its 24th  annual Teacher of the Year. This is the second time in three years that a Mingus Union teacher has won the Yavapai County Education Foundation Teacher of the Year award, as Mike Westcott earned the honor in 2016.

The 2017 honoree Jessica Marks shared how her award last year “changed her life.”

The Glassford Hill Middle School language arts teacher in the Humboldt Unified School District said four years before earning her honor she was fired from a teaching job. She almost left the profession.

Why did she stay?

“Because Home Depot wouldn’t hire me,” she said.

Marks said the year she was selected was one of the worst of her life – her personal life and finances were in chaos and she wasn’t sure where she was headed. With the financial gift that comes with the Teacher of the Year Award – a total of $7,000 to the top winner – she is about to buy her own home.

With a second chance to prove her teaching worth,

Marks said she invested “all of my energy and heart” into her students. She rebounded; a life lesson she has passed to her classes.

Not every day is sunshine and warm fuzzies: “kids are silly, charming and strange,” Marks said.

Some days, Marks declared, she leaves the school elated with how a lesson resonated. On another, she is sad to hear a student has contemplated suicide, or a parent has been sent to jail.

“And I’m teaching the semi-colon,” Marks said.

In communities across the state this week, teachers have protested the need for more dollars, not just to pay their bills, but to elevate education as a whole for today, tomorrow and the years to come.

“We’re in it for the kids,” said Marks, noting that with a master’s degree and nine years of teaching experience she earns $600 in her weekly paycheck; she earns $500 on a weekend selling beer at a golf course. “We would take a bullet for our kids – some of us have.”

For more than three hours, Yavapai County teachers were center stage.

Seventy-two teachers were nominated in six categories; 17 emerged as finalists and six as winners. Prescott Mile High Middle School seventh-grade language arts teacher Summer Ammons won Outstanding First Year Teacher.

The other category winners are: K-5: Allison McElwee, third grade at Mountain View Elementary School in Humboldt; Cross Grades Specialist K-8: Shelly Zale, reading specialist at Dr. Daniel Bright Elementary School in Cottonwood-Oak Creek; 6-8: Jenene Jackson, sixth-grade science and spelling/phonics at Mountain View Elementary School in Humboldt; High School: Craig Mai, mathematics at Mingus Union High School; and Cross Grades Specialist 9-12: Prescott High School Retired United Air Force Lt. Col. William DeKemper, department chairman for the Air Force JROTC program.

At the start of the program, Yavapai County Board Supervisor Craig Brown read a proclamation from the full board declaring this Yavapai County Teacher Week. He declared teachers to be the “heart and soul” of our communities; men and women who help define success for the “nation’s youngest citizens.”

In her role as the evening’s mistress of ceremonies, Chino Valley Assistant Superintendent Cindy Daniels lauded teaches for continually going above and beyond.

In a funny litany of duties, Daniels outlined how teachers answer the question, “What did you do today?”

Fed a hungry child from a desk stash; bandaged a skinned knee; taught values of democracy, how to balance a checkbook and interpret the periodic table; disciplined a bully; handed out crayons for an art project; read aloud a story; provided instruction on technology and sex education; and counseled students to stay away from drugs and alcohol. All before the lunch bell chimed.

“In the face of great challenges, the people in this room inspire,” Daniels said. “Everyone can name a teacher that changed their life.”

Following in Marks’ footsteps with the top honor, Mai, a former AT&T engineer who is now finishing his 20th year as a math teacher at Mingus High, said he cannot help but feel somewhat unworthy and “scared to death” by the responsibility that comes with such an honor.

Yet he is also emboldened by the company in which he finds himself, Mai suggested.

Listening to others talk about the difficulties of the last week, one that saw teachers walking out of classrooms to convince lawmakers that education needs to be the state’s top priority, Mai said he took a different view. He saw it the week as a win for his chosen profession.

Raising his voice, Mai said it was “amazing to be an educator in Arizona this week.”

“I’m so proud to be one of you,” Mai said to booming applause and a standing ovation.

-- Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.

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