All over Tooele County next Tuesday morning, teachers will greet new students as they return from their summer vacation and start the process of settling down for a new year of learning.
At Sterling Harris Elementary, in the heart of Tooele City, 32 sixth grade students headed for Room 16 will be greeted by Curtis Orton, Tooele County School District’s “2013 Teacher of The Year.”
Orton, a native of Parowan, has been teaching for 28 years and has been at Harris Elementary his entire career.
With a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and minors in special education and physical science, Orton graduated in 1986 from Southern Utah University .
Teaching wasn’t on his mind though when he started at SUU.
“My grandfather was the county treasurer for many years,” said Orton. “So I started out studying accounting. After a year I decided that I couldn’t work with numbers and papers for the rest of my life. I like people and had to do what makes me happy.”
Orton recalled his English teacher in Parowan, Mrs. Bentley.
“She made learning fun,” he said. “We could spend an hour talking about the social implications of ‘Mork and Mindy,’ or analyzing the lyrics of a Pink Floyd song.”
After spending time volunteering in the classroom of friends that were teachers, Orton decided he liked kids and wanted to be a teacher, too. He realized teaching was a career where he could make a difference.
After earning his degree from SUU, Orton submitted applications at large school districts in the Wasatch Front area, as well as one at the Tooele County School District.
“The larger school districts all said ‘We’ll take a look at your application and get back to you,” he said. “Tooele was different.”
Jim Gowans, then the assistant superintendent of TCSD, called Orton and asked when he could come for an interview. Orton told Gowans he could come to Tooele the next day.
Although Orton grew up in Utah, he had never been to Tooele. This was before the Internet, so the first thing Orton did after the phone call was to buy a map so he could find Tooele.
He found it and never left.
Orton taught fourth grade for 14 years and now sixth grade for 14 years, with one year teaching a split fifth and sixth-grade class.
“You’ve got to evolve or you will go the way of the dinosaur,” is how Orton described his philosophy of teaching. “Teachers have to be constantly changing to keep up with the latest tools and methods.”
A green board and a piece of chalk was high technology when Orton started teaching. That evolved through white boards with colored dry erase markers, to today’s interactive Promethean boards linked by wireless technology to a computer, he said.
“I use technology in the classroom not just to entertain, but to engage students and prepare them for their future,” Orton said.
Today’s students are very electronic, to the point that some social skills are starting to suffer, according to Orton.
“Kids have cell phones and they use Facebook and text each other instead of talking,” he said. “They don’t use email anymore because it’s too slow.”
While Orton uses technology to teach, he also works hard to motivate students to enjoy old-fashioned things — like picking a book and reading.
Orton will read the first book in an author’s series of novels to his class. Reading in an entertaining manner, when students ask for more, he tells them they will have to read it for themselves.
After they read a book, he bridges to writing instruction by asking students to write a book review. The review is not just a book report that provides a synopsis of the plot, but the students are challenged to give the book a rating between zero and five stars and defend their rating in writing.
Orton’s classroom is colorful. He displays motivational posters, posters about young adult books, the solar system, math equations, mnemonic devices, and other reminders of classroom studies and projects.
Empty, waiting for students to arrive on the first day, his room still exudes an amount of educational energy. Orton uses words like genuine, sincere, and hard-working to describe his students at Harris Elementary.
Since before Orton started teaching at Harris, he said the school had a reputation as being a tough school with rough students.
“I’ve never seen it,” he said. “Our test scores have improved and our students are great.”
The key, according to Orton, is to get to know your students and their families.
“Once you realize the parents of a student that has trouble turning in assignments are working three or four jobs to make house payments and put food on the table, your perspective changes,” he said. “You still have the same high expectations, but you can be more human about it.”
Orton, who once let one of his adult former students spend three months on his couch while adjusting to life after prison, said he loves teaching because it changes people.
“You make a difference in the life of a student,” he said. “And they change you.”