Originally published June 26, 2020 by The Burlington Free Press.

By April Barton

It started as a Facebook message from a grandmother and ended in a national award and $10,000.

"I am still in shock," Lyn Porter said of receiving the National University System-Sanford Teacher Award for Vermont.

A physical education teacher at Williston's Allen Brook School, Porter said of the 51 recipients (one for each U.S. state and D.C.) she was among a handful of gym teachers; there were a few teachers of the arts and a guidance counselor, but most were classroom teachers.

Surprise announcement

The announcement was made as a surprise during a Zoom meeting June 17 when the nominees on the call were told they were all winners.

"I am sitting on my porch because I have one cat that will jump on the computer during any call I'm on," Porter said. "And, it was a 90-degree night and I'm dripping wet with sweat."

She thought she would be waiting until they got to Vermont, later in the alphabet, but the announcement came early.

"They unmuted us and there was a second of silence," she said. "People were wiping their eyes, crying, that was my opportunity to wipe the sweat that was running down my face," she said.

Social-emotional learning in gym class

A student's grandmother started the ball rolling by messaging Porter through Facebook saying she needed to fill out a form.

Through the nomination process Porter learned about T. Denny Sanford, the award's namesake and philanthropist who is giving money teachers across the U.S. who engage in social-emotional learning to inspire their students. The award is affiliated with the National University System, which provides professional development to educators.

Porter, who teaches in a pre-K through second grade school, said "physical education is very driven toward that aspect. A lot of what we teach is team building, communication and the ability to work with many people."

She works to "meet kids where they are," understanding what they may be struggling with if their behavior necessitates taking a break from gym activities. She said she refuses to stand over a child when addressing them, and instead sits beside them and gives them the opportunity to talk through their actions and feelings. She puts together small groups with children of differing needs and abilities so they can learn to work together and promotes teamwork over competitiveness.

"Being the best athlete doesn't always make the best teammate." she said. A former middle school sports coach, she teaches her students to work on learning, improving and having fun over winning.

Porter, who has taught P.E. for 29 years in Williston, also uses her community connections to get students involved in the broader world through the fundraiser Jump Rope for Heart and Girl Scouts, and as an EMT.

During remote learning she has created many videos for students, been on classroom video calls and painted close to 400 rocks which have been distributed all over Williston to spread joy during a difficult time.

She also tries to incorporate humor into her classes to create connections and has been told by students the reason they like her is she is a big kid herself.

What to do with the money?

Porter said the Sanford Teacher Award prize money is given with the intent it will compensate inspiring teachers who may not receive a paycheck commensurate to the impact they've had on their students.

"I've never had money in my life where I've had extra to think about playing with," she said of the $10,000 prize.

Porter's mother suggested it would help recoup what she has invested each year into her classroom.

"I can't tell you how much I've spent on acrylic paints, rocks and sealant spray this spring," she said.

But, she is thinking of contributing toward a down payment on a house (she is currently renting) or taking the trip to Greece and Ireland she's always dreamed of making.

Either way, she hopes to use it wisely to have an opportunity to do something she hasn't done before.

Of the 51 Sanford Teacher Awards this year, one person will be named the national winner and receive an additional $50,000 prize.

"I'm not holding my breath," Porter said.

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