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Posted: Wednesday, April 6, 2022

UE Presents Vanderburgh County Educators of the Year

On Wednesday, April 6, the University of Evansville (UE) presented four individuals in Vanderburgh County with Outstanding Educator Awards. Each educator received a surprise announcement within their school as part of UE’s 31st annual presentation of awards. 

The competition, which is specific to Vanderburgh County, recognizes current classroom teachers and building principals in grades K-12 with at least three years of experience. The Outstanding Educator Awards for Vanderburgh County are sponsored by UE, Evansville Teachers Federal Credit Union, and the Evansville Courier & Press. 

The following awards were presented on Wednesday: 

Outstanding Elementary Teacher of the Year: Kenneth “Kennan” Barnett, sixth grade teacher at Vogel Elementary                                     

Kennan has been teaching for five years, all of which have been spent at Vogel Elementary. This year, he began teaching English and language arts, math, science, and social studies at the fifth-grade level. 

As a teacher, his goal is to ensure each student leaves his classroom having grown academically, emotionally, and socially. By creating a safe learning environment where students respect one another and value hard work and positivity, he hopes students will thrive outside of the school walls.   

“On a daily basis, I remind my students that they have control over very few things in their life, but they will always have full control over their work ethic and attitude,” said Kennan. “Anything they may lack in skill, they will always make up for with these two traits.” 

The pandemic has taught Kennan a lot about adaptability. He was a physical education teacher before COVID-19 arrived. While he planned to continue this path, a large influx of students returning from Virtual Academy required additional teachers in the classroom. Kennan saw this as an opportunity to grow and expand upon his experience. “I went from locomotor movements and manipulative skills in PE to explaining the area of parallelograms and how to write a first-person narrative essay,” he said. “I never saw myself outside of the gym, but now I have built strong relationships with my team and my amazing students, and I can’t imagine leaving the classroom.” 

Last year, Kennan had the opportunity to pilot a program, titled “Gentleman’s Academy,” for sixth grade boys at Vogel. Being the only male teacher in the school, he wanted to ensure the boys had a positive male mentor in life that they could always rely on. The program specifically helps those with a low sense of belonging or high frequency of behavior issues. The boys are paired with a staff member that they trust and meet with daily. The staff members build trust with the students as they support them academically, socially, and behaviorally. Bi-monthly meetings also incorporate helpful lessons, such as budgeting, tipping at restaurants, and spending quality time with family members. 

Outstanding Middle School Teacher of the Year: Lori Kassel-Reed, special education teacher for grades 6-8 at Washington Middle School 

Lori Kassel-Reed teaches English and language arts, social studies, social skills, and resource skills for students in grades 6-8 with emotional disabilities. Some of her additional roles at Washington include being a spelling bee sponsor, coach for girls’ track, and an enrichment teacher for summer school. 

With 16 years of teaching experience, Lori believes that every child can learn and reach their potential when teachers tailor their approaches to student strengths and weaknesses.  

Of those years, she has spent the last eight working with students who have experienced and are working through some type of trauma. This can include abuse, homelessness, incarceration, or self-harm.  

“In this classroom, you will see some amazingly strong and resilient children who are doing their best to better themselves so they can move to general education classrooms,” Lori said. “There is a lot of love, laughter, and healing in this room.”  

Because the goal is to move students out of the room, Lori runs a tightly scheduled class with clearly defined expectations and a focus on behavior. She teaches self-regulation and coping skills; she encourages them to face challenges in life and overcome them. 

“I let my students see my mistakes and share with them my own personal challenges,” she said. “I have a very strong track record of getting my students back into the general education classrooms, and I feel that’s due to building that trust and honesty with them.” 

In nominating Lori for an Outstanding Educator Award, an individual said that “she is the most selfless person [they] have ever met. She deserves the award because she is a genuinely good, caring person and teacher.”  

Outstanding High School Teacher of the Year: Brian Bobbitt, Master Teacher for Project Lead the Way at North High School 

At North High School, Brian Bobbitt teaches engineering and robotics. It’s part of Project Lead the Way (PLTW), which develops STEM curricula for K-12 teachers. For the 2019-2020 school year, he was named the National Project Lead the Way Outstanding Teacher. 

As the Master Teacher of this program, Brian has had the opportunity to train other teachers across the nation to use PLTW curricula for engineering classes. It has proven to be beneficial to him, too, as he is always learning from those he is fortunate enough to teach. 

“Simply put, I love what I do,” he said. “My dad always said, ‘pick something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’” Brian has always enjoyed teaching, and he especially likes the subject area of engineering. However, his favorite part of the job is watching students develop ideas and come up with their own solutions. In his career, he has seen students grow a love for learning and stretch their expectations to do even better.  

“For all students who make their way to the engineering labs, my goal is to ensure they leave with the ability to solve problems as well as a lifelong passion for learning more,” he said. 

Brian implemented a robotics team at North just a few years ago, and now the students compete at district, regional, and state events. Students not only get a chance to grow beyond the normal scope of the curriculum, but they always have a chance to meet and work with engineers from Toyota, Berry Global, Mead-Johnson, and Sabic. Brian is thrilled to see these students make career connections before graduating high school, several of which have led to summer internships. 

A nomination for Brian noted his enthusiasm for engineering, as well as the confidence he instills in his students. “His passion for STEM projects is contagious, and he helps students see how they can use their skills to give back to their community,” the form said. 

Outstanding Building Principal of the Year: Aaron Huff, Principal of Bosse High School 

Aaron Huff has been in the education field for 19 years, and this is his fourth year as the principal for Bosse High School. He is a member of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in which he serves as the advocacy chair, governance chair, and executive director of the search committee. He is also part of the steering committee and board of directors. In December, Aaron expects to earn his doctoral degree. 

Since becoming the principal of Bosse, Aaron has been focused on leading the instructional leadership team to improve employee performance and student outcomes. The school has also been working to improve chronic absenteeism among students. He noted that COVID-19 has created additional challenges in navigating this, but he and the teachers have created an environment of seeking continual improvement. 

Aaron firmly believes kids must learn no matter what, and some students will need very little support while others may need coaching or encouragement. “Our ability to create change in students’ lives depends on developing a meaningful relationship with them,” he said. “We are responsible for creating conditions that promote academic and personal success for all students.” 

To unlock students’ success and realization of their own gifts, Aaron says the same must be done with teachers. As an administrator, he is focused on removing barriers to improvement and dismantling systems that maintain the status quo. He thinks it is important to “find ways to get to yes and then get out of the way.” 

Most recently, Aaron struck a collaborative partnership with Toyota Indiana. Course offerings and instruction will align with Toyota’s qualities in entry-level employees, and students will be offered a position with the manufacturer immediately after graduation. The “Toyota 4T” program will launch this fall, and Aaron is confident it will significantly impact the landscape of education and student outcomes at Bosse. 

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