Neither Michael Potts nor Dan Lewellen ever expected to be recognized as two of the top teachers in Indiana.
But ask their students at Brown County Junior High, and it’s a different story.
“He’s a very profound We the People teacher. … I think he deserves this award,” eighth-grader Wyatt Ewenn said about Potts, his honors social studies teacher.
“I think he should get it for however long as he teaches, because he’s just such a great teacher,” eighth-grader Travis Ely said about Lewellen, who teaches his Project Lead the Way class.
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Lewellen was named the 2016 Engineering/Technology Middle School Teacher of the Year for Indiana by the Indiana Association for Career and Technical Education.
Potts will accept the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year award at a dinner in December.
“We’re proud of both of them and we’re really excited about the attention our school gets as a result of it,” Principal Brian Garman said.
Garman and former We the People team member Tanner Bowman wrote letters of recommendation for Potts’ award, but the official nomination process was done by Brown County Historical Society member Gloria Berryman.
“Not only is he an excellent We the People teacher … but he’s an excellent teacher, period, of United States history,” Garman said. “He’s incredibly bright and very, very informed and does a great job of getting his students enthused and interested in history.”
The BCJHS We the People team has won the national competition in Washington, D.C., twice under Potts’ supervision and placed second the last two years. The team has won the state competition six consecutive times.
“There were certainly people who laid a foundation for success in that program, but he’s taken it to another whole new level,” Garman said.
In Potts’ honors social studies classroom Sept. 29, discussion centered around a recent override of President Barack Obama’s veto preventing families of Sept. 11 victims from suing the Saudi Arabian government for their involvement in the terrorist attacks more than 15 years ago.
“For two-thirds of both of these houses to override that, they had a lot of bipartisan support, which means Republicans and Democrats worked together, which is rare. But they did in this case,” Potts told his class.
Eighth-grader Emily Earnshaw said Potts makes learning fun.
“You’re not just sitting there and listening to him lecture. He lets everyone speak and have their own opinion. He never contradicts anyone’s opinion and he’s really nice to everyone,” she said.
“He’s one of the nicest teachers and most respected teachers I’ve ever known.”
Getting his students to think critically is one of Potts’ teaching strengths, Garman said.
Potts’ favorite part about teaching is the “light-bulb moments” students have during discussion.
“I get a lot of credit. I love the credit, I do, I appreciate it, but at the same time, I’m getting these kids with a pretty firm foundation. The foundation upon which I am building upon is a pretty firm one based on education they’ve had throughout the system, based on their parents, based on the community,” he said.
Garman recommended Lewellen for his award and was present when he received it in a surprise ceremony Sept. 23.
Garman credits him with getting the school’s Project Lead the Way program up and running. Developed by Project Lead The Way, Inc., the curriculum focuses on projects in computer science, engineering and biomedical science.
The former shop classroom at the junior high was transformed into the engineering computer lab, including two 3-D printers and a laser engraver. It is today under Lewellen’s guidance.
“He was at the ground floor of that initiative. He was the person, architect of the lab down there. He took the budget that was allocated and spent the time to put it together and developed the program as it is today. It continues to grow and get better,” Garman said.
All projects in the class are completed on a computer with Auto Desk Inventor, software used by professionals in the engineering field today.
Anna Fleetwood said she looks up to Lewellen. “It’s my favorite class. It’s the only class I look forward to during the day,” she said.
“Every day we do something fun. He makes jokes. Everybody in the class is always interacting with each other,” eighth-grader Ely said. “Not only are we having fun, but we’re also getting the work done.”
Lewellen has always been interested in engineering and design. He initially majored in mechanical engineering, but decided he wanted to teach because he didn’t want a desk job.
As he’s speaking, a small seventh-grade girl comes up to him.
“Yes ma’am?” he responds.
“Can you help me?” she asks quietly.
“It’s definitely not the same day over and over,” Lewellen says with a smile.
Helmsburg Elementary School science teacher Brenda Ely has been named one of the top four academic coaches in Indiana.
She was honored at a luncheon in Indianapolis on Sept. 27.
She was nominated by Helmsburg Principal Kelli Bruner.
“Mrs. Ely is a very dedicated teacher,” Bruner said.
“She is a role model for both students and adults. She is always striving to meet the needs of all learners. We are all very proud of her in the Helmsburg community. This is a well deserved award.”
The nomination was kept a secret from Ely until Bruner learned she made it to the top four.
“I thought ‘That was sweet, that was nice.’ But I didn’t feel like I did anything but my job. You just do your job. But it was nice for somebody to notice,” Ely said.
Ely has been teaching in Brown County schools for more than 15 years. She recently started coaching the Helmsburg Science Bowl team, which brought home two state championships over all other fourth-grade teams in the state.
“I think it’s just natural for us to do well because we have such an incredible program here,” Ely said. “I think we’re going to start seeing more and more successes because of what we have. They’re developing a love for it and interest in it.”
Science programs in the district have changed since her oldest son graduated from Brown County High School in 2010, she said. He entered college as a sophomore due to all of the dual credits he earned in high school. But at that time, science lab projects were all done on paper in the high school.
“He called me right after school started and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, Mom. I’m so behind.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you’re behind?’ And he said, ‘I’ve never been in a lab,'” Ely said.
Everyone else in his class had been in a science lab before and knew what to do, she said.
She credits Assistant Superintendent Dennis Goldberg with starting the initiative to boost the science programs in all of the schools with the construction of new science labs.
“Our kids are bright kids and we just set them up to really succeed. I think it’s because we have such support from the top down, and I think we’re going to see more and more of this kind of stuff. I think I just happened to catch the train at the right time,” Ely said.