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Recent FHSU grads earn teaching honors

1/30/2014

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Alex Toepfer wanted to be a computer programmer when he began his college career at Fort Hays State University in 2002. A few years later, Valerie Harris began pre-med classes at FHSU with plans to become a pediatrician because she "loves working with children."

Both changed their majors and now are being honored for excelling in different careers than they intended.

Toepfer and Harris, both Hays High School graduates, were chosen as Horizon Award winners, given to "exemplary first-year teachers" by the Kansas State Department of Education.

The Horizon is a regional competition in its ninth year, with four regions corresponding to the state's U.S. Congressional districts. Four elementary and four secondary classroom teachers were selected from each of the four regions across the state.

Toepfer -- a music teacher in the Washburn Rural school district in Topeka, where he also serves as assistant director of bands for Washburn Rural High School -- was chosen as one of the secondary teachers in Region 2.

Harris still followed her dream of working with children, but in a classroom rather than a doctor's office. A fifth-grade teacher at Central Elementary School in Goodland, she was one of the elementary teachers selected this year to represent Region 1.

Toepfer, inspired by his high school band teacher, Craig Manteuffel, delved into music in college and received three degrees from Fort Hays -- in music education, secondary education and music performance.

While working on his master's at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Toepfer also gained experience in teaching while working as a woodwinds specialist in the Shawnee Mission school district and as an adjunct instructor in the same capacity at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

Toepfer was working several part-time jobs after completing his master's while waiting for his perfect job in the Kansas City area.

"I was running all over KC (working) because that's where I wanted to be," Toepfer said. "I applied for (music education) jobs, but it's a very competitive market. Then I saw this job opening, and I wanted to give it a shot."

Washburn Rural is glad he did.

"He does a very good job in everything he does," said Luke Chaffee, director of bands at Washburn Rural. "We're very fortunate to have him -- and hope he stays here for a very long while."

Ditto for how folks feel about Harris in Goodland.

"I am really impressed with how she established a relationship with her kids," said Harvey Swager, principal at Central Elementary, a school for third- through fifth-grade students. "For a teacher to be real successful, you have to establish a real positive relationship with kids, and she has done that."

"(Technology) is another good strength of Valerie's," Swager said. "We had just gone to 1-to-1 iPads with our students, and she's done a lot of real neat projects using technology."

After his experience at UMKC, Toepfer said, "I primarily wanted to be a performer."

"But I wanted to contribute where I was the most successful. Being a teacher is a lot more fulfilling because I'm able to pass on my passion."

Toepfer and Harris -- who both said it was a "huge honor" just to be nominated for the Horizon Award -- will be recognized in a ceremony next month at the Kansas Exemplary Educators Network State Education Conference in Topeka.

Harris doesn't know Toepfer -- she was in sixth grade at Felten Middle School his senior year at Hays High. But she said she is looking forward to meeting him Feb. 21.

"I think it's really neat," Harris said, "that two Hays High grads are getting this award the same year."