PHS chemistry teacher emerges as Yavapai County Outstanding First-Year Teacher award finalist
In his first year in the classroom, and as a junior varsity basketball coach, Prescott High School chemistry teacher Todd Harris Jr. landed more than a job.
He’s found a calling.
“I really do love this job,” said the Montana native who graduated from the University of Great Falls with his bachelor’s degree in secondary education in broad field science in May 2015 and did his student teaching at Prescott High his final spring semester. “I’m really looking forward to my next year and all that will have in store.”
A basketball player from childhood, Harris pursued teaching because it seemed a profession that most closely aligned to his passion for coaching youth basketball. Match that with an affinity for science, in particular chemistry, his degree seemed to make perfect sense, he said.
What Harris could not know was how well-suited he would be for the teaching profession.
“It has surprised me,” Harris admits, noting his college and student teaching prepared him but until one is front and center every day in a classroom, the realities are something of a mystery.
At 22, Harris came to the high school as the youngest member of the faculty, only a few years older than his oldest students.
Yet Harris’ age has never been a factor in his classroom demeanor. He has commanded respect from day one, according to his students, fellow faculty and administrators.
“He really relates to his students, and is always very approachable,” said Cheyenne Church, a senior and the district’s Governing Board student representative, who took chemistry with Harris when he was student teaching but regularly hears accolades from fellow students about his teaching skills. “I actually think the fact he is just out of college
has been a selling point for him because he has that fresh, firsthand perspective of what it’s like to be a student. He really understands the struggles students are going through, and I think he uses that to determine course load and how he explains things. He looks at his explanations through the eyes of a student, not as one of a professor.
“He’s the best first-year teacher I’ve ever seen.”
Such praise is the backbone of Harris’ becoming one of three finalist for Outstanding First-Year Teacher in the 23rd annual Yavapai County Teacher of the Year program sponsored by the Yavapai Education Foundation. The other two finalists are Lisa Fuller, a kindergarten teacher at Dr. Daniel Bright Elementary School in the Cottonwood-Oak Creek District, and Stephen Ross, a math teacher at Bradshaw Mountain High School in the Humboldt Unified School District. The finalists were narrowed from a field of 15 nominees.
In a nomination letter representing Prescott High School staff, Principal Stephanie Hillig described Harris as a teacher who brings a contagious energy into his classroom through innovative, creative and enthusiastic approaches to what can be complex scientific concepts.
“Students are excited about going to science class every day,” Hillig said.
From his beginnings as a student teacher, Hillig said it was clear that Harris had all the attributes the school was seeking in their science department, and has demonstrated “exemplary” qualities in his classes that include the advanced placement course.
“One of the strengths in Mr. Harris’ instruction is that he finds ways to make chemistry relative to future classes and careers,” Hillig said. “… Mr. Harris’ philosophy is that students need to learn by experimenting and discovering the answers on their own … When one enters Mr. Harris’ classroom, it is as if you are entering a veteran teachers’ room as he clearly understands his curriculum and he is very confident with his delivery of instruction.”
On the basketball court, Harris, too, imparts his passion for the game, as he said he believes this is a “teaching sport” that requires hard work, something Harris emphasizes is critical to any endeavor.
Whether he is teaching chemistry or coaching basketball, Hillig said he brings “qualities of a veteran teacher with the enthusiasm and energy of a first-year teacher.”
A humble, yet confident teacher and coach, Harris said he is beyond honored to be a finalist. The awards banquet is April 28.
“It’s cool to have such recognition in such a short time,” Harris said. “It’s pretty exciting.”