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Altara Elementary teacher honored with Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education

Aug 29, 2017 03:35PM ● Published by Jana Klopsch

Altara Elementary teacher Joani Richardson (left) is all smiles after Karen Huntsman announced to the school that Richardson won the Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education. (Canyons School District)

By Julie Slama | Julie@mycityjournals.com

This summer, Altara first-grade teacher Joani Richardson isn’t planning to revamp her curriculum, but instead, relax while playing with her grandchildren — supposedly. She does have plans to update her QR codes she has in place for first-grade students to scan after solving a problem or during a scavenger hunt, and “relaxing” also may mean only racing half-marathons instead of the numerous marathons she’s known to run.

The 42-year veteran teacher, who at 65 says, “I don’t sit still,” was frustrated shortly before the end of the school year when her principal Nicole Svee-Magann said there would be a mandatory surprise assembly.

“I was upset because I had a lot to do,” Richardson recalled. “I had someone come especially to help with a project so I felt really bad that we had to be interrupted for an assembly.”

Richardson said she knew it was something special with she saw Canyons School District Superintendent Jim Briscoe, the school PTA and special guests at the assembly.

“When they said they were there to announce the winner of the Huntsman Award (for Excellence in Education), my mouth just dropped when it included my name in the same sentence,” she said. “I wished my family and husband would have been there — and then, I saw them. I didn’t even see them when I walked in.”

Richardson was one of 11 Utah educators selected for the honor, which came with a crystal obelisk and a $10,000 cash prize. They were picked by a panel of prominent citizens and educators after a nomination process. 

Svee-Magann said she had to add the word “mandatory” to the assembly to make sure Richardson would come and not continue to organize her classroom for her students.

“She’s so amazing that she is determined to give every minute to those students,” she said. “She is willing to help others with methods she knows work and at the same time, be willing to learn and take on new technology and changes. She builds upon a solid foundation for her students by being innovative and creative.”

Philanthropist and award presenter Karen Huntsman agreed, telling the students and guests, “She teaches for the love of teaching.”

Richardson, who said she’s taught more than 1,000 first-graders, was nominated by Altara’s School Community Council.

“We started gathering former students, parents, colleagues and everyone’s input in January and then had the task of taking about a dozen pages of glowing recommendations and editing it to two pages,” said Chair Jody Hadfield, whose husband, Aaron, received the award last year as a volunteer.

Again and again, the nominations mentioned her enthusiasm, organization and desire to help students read.

“She’s very organized and is like the Energizer Bunny — she just keeps going. She gets every first-grader to read, even if it’s a hard, uphill task. There’s no alternative for her,” she said.

Former student, now Alta High 2017 graduate Jordyn Wainwright, remembers Richardson’s literacy influence on her.

“We celebrated Dr. Seuss’ and Clifford’s birthdays, went to the library a lot and created our own stories and illustrated them in hard-bound books,” she said. “She always encouraged us to read and I remember she was super energetic. She jumped rope with us.”

First-grader Sarah Christiansen said she likes the activities they’ve done this school year.

“We’ve painted rocks in our room and went to see the red-wing blackbirds at the wetlands,” she said. “We read ‘We’re Going on a Hike,’ then had a teddy bear picnic in a secret place. We had an Easter egg hunt by solving math problems. She’s helped me with my papers and helps me with my reading. She has me underline questions, and then I write my answers.”

Her mother, Wendy, said that she is grateful for the attention Richardson has given her daughter.

“Sarah has really struggled as a reader and Joani has taken a lot of time to help her get it down and make it click,” she said. “At the beginning of the year, Sarah didn’t even hit kindergarten benchmark and now she’s mostly at it this year. Joani’s not only given her a love of books, but the attitude that she can do anything by reading.”

Richardson said she’s had some students give her a challenge through the years.

“I don’t give up on a child. I’ve had some students in different circumstances, but I have never thought not to teach a child to read. Reading is the key to life and to more successes in life,” she said. 

But she makes sure students love reading.

“My favorite book is ‘Harry the Dirty Dog.’ It reminds me that first-graders don’t always like to take baths and they think it’s pretty funny too,” she said.

Even after the school year ends, Richardson is encouraging students to read as she signed them all up for the Salt Lake County reading program.

“I used to ride my bike every single day to the library in the summer to see how many books I could read. I only missed one day when I was sick. I thought I’d win reading the most books, but I ended up losing because I missed that one day. I was motivated to read and I want that for my students,” she said.

Former principal Scott Jameson said it’s not just the struggling readers, but it’s all students Richardson helps.

“She knows how to challenge the advanced learners and is extremely dedicated to make sure each of her students learn and will be successful,” he said. “She makes sure all her students are engaged and actively learning and having fun while doing so.” 

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