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Phoenix Forward

Top teacher inspires students to make a lasting impact

2010 Indiana Teacher of the Year Byron Ernest

Indiana school teacher Byron Ernest looked out the sixth-floor window of the historic Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. From his perspective, he saw the grassy knoll and the street below — and imagined the trajectory of one of history’s most infamous bullets. He envisioned those awful moments in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Peering out the window with him that January evening in 2010 was University of Phoenix President Bill Pepicello. He turned to Ernest and said, “This is where history was changed. You’ll soon have the opportunity to do the same. But your efforts will have a much more positive effect.”

As Indiana’s 2010 Teacher of the Year, Ernest was in Dallas at an annual event that honors the nation’s top teachers, through a program sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Pepicello was there to present each educator with a Teaching It Forward® scholarship. The unique requirement of these University of Phoenix scholarships is that each teacher is asked to “teach forward” their award by nominating someone from their home state who might not otherwise be able to pursue higher education.

What a wonderful opportunity to make a lasting difference in a person's life.

“How often can you give a full-ride scholarship to someone?” Ernest noted. “What a wonderful opportunity to make a lasting difference in a person’s life.”

Always the educator, Ernest returned to Lebanon High School with a creative plan for the scholarship nomination process: He got his students involved.

“I asked kids who’d spent a lot of time applying for their own scholarships to create an application for others, using what works and what doesn’t work from their own, personal experiences,” he said.  

“A very deserving, hard-working young man was eventually selected for the scholarship. In a way, my students had a stake in helping make college possible for someone, too.”
Reaching for the moon

Ernest is that kind of teacher: The one who’s drawn to making a difference wherever he can; who’s always creating learning opportunities for his students in the classroom and beyond — like his inventive scholarship selection process, or his assignments for students to discuss current events with family members at the dinner table and report back. He calls it “24/7 learning.” A prolific blogger about a range of topics in education, he recently joined the University of Phoenix faculty in Indianapolis and is currently pursuing his doctoral degree.

The head of the Agriculture Department at the Lebanon Community School Corporation, Ernest is passionate about his profession, which goes much further than “plows, sows and cows,” he quipped.

“A lot of things that we’ll need in the future will come from agriculture. Our kids will be responsible for leading innovations in food, fuel, medicine and biotech.”

Recalling JFK’s life and impact, Ernest noted it was the president’s challenge of putting a man on the moon that inspired a nation to embrace education in the ‘60s. “Today, agriculture is this country’s next chance to compete in the world. It’s our next ‘moon shot.’

“My responsibility as a teacher is to help kids prepare for such an exciting future.”

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In its 60-year history of the CCSSO Teacher of the Year program, Ernest is the first, and so far only, agriculture teacher ever selected for this honor. The 2012 CCSSO Teacher of the Year award ceremony on January 26 in Dallas again featured Teaching It Forward scholarships from University of Phoenix.

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