As a young girl, Michelle Mourtgous dreamed of being an astronaut. To prepare for her dream, Mourtgous memorized the Russian alphabet because as an astronaut she would need to communicate with Russian cosmonauts.
As Mourtgous grew older, her dreams and life plans changed. Although she hasn’t reached the stars yet, star light fell on her Tuesday morning in the Grantsville Junior High School cafeteria.
A special assembly was held at the school Tuesday morning. Mourtgous, who has taught Spanish and mathematics at GJHS for six years, was surprised when Karen Huntsman, wife of Utah businessman and philanthropist Jon Huntsman, Sr., announced at the assembly that Mourtgous was one of 11 statewide recipients of the 2013 Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education.
For the past 21 years, the Huntsmans, along with a panel of judges they select, have reviewed nominations from throughout the state and selected exemplary educators to recognize for their dedication to teaching. The award comes with $10,000 cash for the personal use of the recipient.
Mourtgous was nominated for the award by GJHS’s former principal, Keith Davis.
“Michelle has worked tirelessly to improve student learning and the quality of the educational experience at GJHS since she joined our faculty,” wrote Davis in his nomination letter. “She has had a significant impact far beyond the walls of our school and the other schools within our district. Parents and students love her.”
Mourtgous pioneered efforts to use the Internet to augment classroom instruction at GJHS, Davis said.
Mourtgous worked her way through college by writing programs to help non-English speaking students to learn English at Brigham Young University’s English Learning Center.
With her computer programming skills in hand, Mourtgous purchased a personal server and wrote web-based lessons for GJHS students to log on and get extra practice or complete make-up work, according to Davis.
Mourtgous has not only used her computer skills to help students learn, but she has also written a computer program that allows the school’s library computer and finance computer to talk to each other. The program reduces the time it takes to coordinate fees for library and text books from hours to minutes.
Always looking for ways to make learning fun, Mourtgous was also the driving force behind starting the district-wide junior high school math team program. Math teams from different junior high schools in the district compete in math competitions modeled after an athletic competition. Each year Mourtgous hosts a district junior high math championship tournament and takes the top 20 students to a state competition.
Computers, language and math are not Mourtgous’ only interests. She also loves music and has volunteered to help the Grantsville High School marching band. Mourtgous has helped with band camp, early morning marching practice and has traveled with the band to competitions.
Math, computers, language and music are all forms of expression to Mourtgous.
“You learn the rules of the system and you learn how to express yourself,” she said.
Parents have praise for Mourtgous’ ability to teach each student as an individual.
“I am certain that Mrs. Mourtgous turned my son’s educational life around at this important time in his life,” said parent KennaRae Arave. “She showed an interest in him and went beyond what was expected to help him succeed.”
Another parent, Colleen Brunson, praised Mourtgous in her endorsement on the award application.
“Our school district is lucky to have such a great teacher. It is obvious that she truly loves teaching and cares about her students,” Brunson wrote. “She is very patient and willing to help students and parents alike.”
Mourtgous’ transformation from a young girl growing up in Plano, Texas, contemplating a career in astronautics to a devoted teacher of junior high school students in Tooele County came about one day as she was pondering her major in linguistics at BYU.
“I was fascinated with linguistics but one day I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my degree,” Mourtgous said. “And then I thought, ‘I know. I will teach Spanish.’”
Mourtgous completed a bachelor’s degree with a double major in linguistics and Spanish teaching, and a minor in Russian teaching. She also completed the requirements to be certified to teach math because she thought it would help her to get a job.
Mourtgous married while at BYU. Her husband, Erik, graduated the year before she did and landed a job teaching music at GJHS. The couple moved to Salt Lake City and Erik commuted to Grantsville while Michelle commuted to Provo to finish her education. Once done with her degree, Davis interviewed her and hired her to teach at GJHS.
Mourtgous said the first half of her first year teaching was hard.
“They had taught us all this theory about how to teach, but it didn’t fit the way my students were used to learning,” Mourtgous said.
Center to Mourtgous’ philosophy of teaching is her insistence on seeing students as individuals. For Mourtgous, it is important that students understand the “why” of what they are learning, not just have the ability to parrot back information.
“Students need to learn to solve problems and use their knowledge in expressive ways,” she said.
Mourtgous hasn’t stopped being a student herself. She is currently working on a master’s degree in curriculum supervision online from Pennsylvania State University. She hopes to use her master’s degree to not only help her to be a better teacher, but also to help other teachers succeed.
One of Mourtgous’ former students, Colin Arave, summed up what he and others believe makes Mourtgous a teacher worthy of recognition for her excellence in education.
“Mrs. Mourtgous really cares about her individual students,” he said. “She knows each one and how best to help them all. She always stayed after school for two to three hours helping anyone who needed help, even if she didn’t teach them. There was one boy who stayed after school every day even if he didn’t need help. He had special needs and I think he was just happy to be around someone nice to him who cared about his learning.”