ELOY — It started with being selected by her colleagues as the Teacher of the Year for Toltec Elementary School, and now Penny Hanes holds the title of Pinal County Teacher of the Year.

“I was in shock actually,” Hanes said when she found out that she was selected. “I received a phone call from one of the members of the Arizona Rural School Association and he said, ‘Congratulations! You’ve been selected.’ I’m like OK, thank you, I didn’t know what he was talking about and then he explained it.”

Hanes has been teaching for 28 years and nearly all of those years have been with the Toltec School District.

“It definitely shows her dedication to the Toltec School District,” Toltec Elementary Principal Misty Huffman said. “It’s an honor to have her here with us because she’s a leader both in our community as well as our school.”

Every year, Huffman sends out an email to staff asking them to nominate a certified teacher to be named Teacher of the Year for the school along with reasons why they have nominated that teacher.

Some of those reasons mentioned that Hanes is a problem solver and dynamic part of the school and her ability to maintain strong, lasting relationships with the students, staff, parents and the rest of the community.

“A key characteristic of hers is she leads by example,” Huffman said. “She’s one of those teachers that I don’t have to tell her what to do, she just knows. She takes the initiative to all projects and tasks and gets it done. She teaches her students to strive for excellence, to love reading and to respect each other. She teaches us (her peers) to give our best for our students, to wear a smile and to remember that life is not about waiting for the storm to pass but instead how to push through the storm and strive with excellence.”

Hanes is currently a Title I reading teacher for first grade through eighth grade.

By working with so many different grade levels, Hanes needs to have different programs that range from working with vocabulary and reading informational text to putting sounds together that form words and then progressing on to sentences and stories.

“Working with the students, it’s that moment when they understand something and they get so excited,” she said. “It’s that positive response that makes it worth all the hard work.”

Huffman added that Hanes makes a big impact on each of her students and she can accelerate and challenge the brightest students because of professional knowledge, experiences and innovations that she has pursued and mastered.

At the beginning of the year, Hanes lays out her expectations for the students.

“We’re here in the classroom to be a community,” she said. “We’re there to help each other, and it’s all right to make mistakes. We’re human and that’s how you learn, you learn from your mistakes. If someone makes a mistake, we don’t laugh, we help each other out so that everyone understands what we’re learning. It’s creating a safe classroom environment, they can be themselves and know that if they do make a mistake, it’s OK.”

Hanes recalls a moment about nine or 10 years ago when a student started crying and thanked her.

“She told me thank you,” Hanes said. “Thank you for teaching her the love of reading. It was that moment that I realized that was what this is all about. It’s not just what happens in the classroom that school year. It’s what our students take with them.”

Hanes knew in high school that she wanted to become a teacher, but even at a younger age she would stand in front of a chalkboard and pretend that she was one.

“I was 15 and I was taking this class and the teacher asked us what we wanted to do in the future,” she said. “I was just thinking about all the different professions and I thought, well I like science and I love math, I love reading and I love writing. It just seemed to fit, being a teacher.”

Being a teacher isn’t a cakewalk, and like with everything else there are good days and bad days. Teaching for nearly three decades, Hanes has had both the good and bad days and she never imagined that some day she would be recognized as Pinal County Teacher of the Year.

“I’m very honored by it and I just do this job because I feel it’s important,” she said. “It’s something that’s important to me, I believe in what I do. I was just thrilled that the teachers voted for me to be Teacher of the Year for our school, that definitely means a lot to me. Then to be chosen as the Pinal County Rural Teacher of the Year, I’m amazed. It’s a special honor.”

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