Perry-Lecompton teacher wins Hupe award
by Carolyn Kaberline
His students have engaged in role playing activities to study the world of ancient Greece, created mosaics showing pre-Columbian society, and competed in jousting matches as they studied the Middle Ages. Because of his ability to motivate students to learn, Mark Armstrong, Perry-Lecompton High School government and world history teacher, is the recipient of this year’s Doris and Dale Hupe Teaching Excellence Award.
Presented each year to an outstanding teacher in USD 343 – especially one who motivates students to want to learn and to obtain more education—the award is presented according to procedures set up by the Perry-Lecompton Endowment Association. These procedures allow the staff in each district attendance center to nominate one or two teachers.
Nominees are then asked to write an essay before being interviewed by a selection committee made up of the superintendent and a parent representative from each school. The recipient of the award is announced at the staff appreciation breakfast held at the end of the school year.
“Receiving the award is quite humbling,” Armstrong said, adding that being nominated by his peers made the award special.
Armstrong said he was “kind of overwhelmed by the committee” as he described the process. “They interviewed all of us on one day in 15 minute time slots. They only asked three questions, and there’s so much you want to say. It was an honor for me just being there.”
Since the time limit was so short, Armstrong noted that the people on the committee had to determine character quickly, and he thinks the questions they asked were geared to do just that.
“One of the questions was ‘how do you motivate kids to want to further their education?’ Another was ‘if you were designing a college course in motivating students, what would the course look like?’”
Armstrong believes that whatever the level of the students, the key to motivating them is getting to know them first.
“The more you know your students, the more you can motivate them,” he explained, although he admitted, “Having 25 students in a class can make it challenging. The neat thing about the Hupe award is that it makes people realize there’s more to teaching [than commonly believed].”
A Minnesota native, Armstrong graduated from Winona State University in 1975, earning a bachelor of science degree in education with a major in social science and minors in physical education and history.
After teaching for 14 years in Iowa, he took a ten year hiatus to become an online training specialist, teaching realtors how to use computer systems.
“It was fun,” Armstrong said of the job. “I got to travel around the country and learned how businesses worked.”
In 1991 he and his wife, Lu, became missionaries for three and a half years, living in Moscow, Russia, and Sofia, Bulgaria, before returning to the United States and becoming a “head hunter” as he looked for employees for a large corporate company for the next two years.
While Armstrong admits he made a lot of money during those two years, he said it was a job with a lot of stress and a lot of cold calling. “I didn’t really like the whole process.”
After spending a year in Rochester, Minnesota, the couple moved to Topeka so they would be closer to Lu’s family. It was while looking through the classified ads one day that he found a listing for a social studies teacher needed at Perry-Lecompton High School. While Armstrong did not apply at the time, he told himself that if that ad was ever in the paper again, he would do so.
That ad did appear one year later when teacher Wayne Ledbetter became the School-to-Work coordinator at PLHS leaving another social studies vacancy. True to his word, Armstrong applied.
“I interviewed with Henry Murphy and had almost given up when I didn’t hear anything,” Armstrong said. However, a contract was offered and Armstrong has been at the high school ever since—13 years.
While some might consider PLHS a small school, Armstrong is quick to note that “I love this size of school. There are good kids here. This is the kind of school I grew up in.”
During his years of teaching Armstrong has seen the status of the teaching profession change as well as the styles of teaching.
“You don’t go into teaching for the money,” he notes, adding that he’s motivated by seeing students succeed. He’s also seen that students will learn more readily if the work is fun. “If it’s not fun, they’re not going to learn. I’ve gone to more project-based learning in government and world history because of this.”
The upcoming elections provide a perfect opportunity for learning the democratic process in government through projects he said. “We’ll start by learning about the Electoral College. Each student will be assigned a state to report on every two or three weeks. They’ll need to look at different publications and tell the class how they believe their state will vote. They’ll try to predict the winner of the election two or three days in advance.”
Armstrong said students will also learn about the political parties—not just the Democrats and Republicans, but also the Libertarians, the Green Party, the Tea Party and others. Not only will students learn about government through these projects, they will have fun doing so.
What advice would Armstrong give to those planning on becoming teachers? “Make sure you like the idea of working with a diverse group. Today’s students have many more interests than school; there are more things pulling them away from learning. Enjoy the students, but be aware of the challenges facing education today, such as motivating kids and using technology. Be able to adapt and change.”
As the winner of the 2012 Hupe Teaching Excellence Award, Armstrong received a framed certificate and monetary award of $1,000. Although he doesn’t know what he’ll use the money for yet, he’s sure that some will go back into supplies for the various projects he presents.
In addition to teaching at PLHS, Armstrong is also an assistant football coach. In his free time, he enjoys wood carving, golfing, bicycling, and playing classical guitar.
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