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PLEASANT VIEW — Fresh off being named Utah's Teacher of the Year for 2022, Weber High School theater teacher Mark Daniels spent part of his morning displaced from his classroom while the school conducted an evacuation drill.
Daniels said he was grateful for the recognition but he is still getting used to the idea of being singled out among tens of thousands of Utah educators as teacher of the year, so the drill bought him a little time to drink it all in. Principal Chris Earnest said a schoolwide celebration is forthcoming.
"It's humbling and a complete honor because there were 35 people there who were nominees that were extremely talented as you read their bios. So it was humbling and it was a beautiful crowd to be a part of," he said of the recognition banquet held Thursday night at a Salt Lake hotel.
Daniels, who has taught for 26 years, is a Weber High School alumnus. His experiences in vocal performance and drama in high school developed his passion for the performing arts, and he still considers those teachers his favorites.
After high school, Daniels went to Weber State University to study education and become a teacher, an aspiration that started in the fifth grade when his teacher allowed him to write a script and direct a skit about Abraham Lincoln instead of writing a report.
While he knew wanted to be an educator, teaching theater and music were not on his radar. Finally, he realized, "Why am I fighting this? Why don't I teach what I love to do?"
During his sophomore year at Weber State he got a part in a show and joined its theater department. "And it just went from there," he said.
At the start of his career, Daniels taught at Hillcrest High School when it was still part of the Jordan School District. But he wanted to return to Weber High, located in Pleasant View. "I love being back on this stage where I performed as a kid, but now on the other side of things," he said.
Although he still performs in local theater productions, "I just finished a production of 'Into the Woods' at the Ogden Musical Theatre," Daniels said his joy is teaching his students all aspects of theatrical production, whether they are on stage, building sets or mastering technology.
"I tell the kids the best thing I can do is train you how to do this, like lights, sound, microphones, acting, and then stand back and let you do it. That's what I love about this program," he said.
Daniels said he also prizes the inclusive nature of the theater.
Earnest said while many teachers complain about large class sizes, Daniels welcomes the opportunity to teach 50-plus students in each of his classes.
"It doesn't matter who you are, Mark wants you in his class," Earnest wrote in support of his nomination.
Daniels said one of his primary goals as an educator is "I want my classroom to be a safe space."
He teaches theater, cinema and stage crew "and if there's an open seat, there should be a body in it."
The school just cast Roald Dahl's "Matilda" as its fall musical.
"Every kid who auditioned we found a spot for in the show and there's 120 kids. They need to have that experience. I just like working with large numbers because I think they can find more friends, build better friendships, build more relationships. There's safety in numbers sometimes, too. They feel it's easier to take a risk sometimes when there's a larger group," Daniels said.
Earnest said there are many outstanding teachers in Utah, but it is especially gratifying that the state recognizes a teacher who is "amazing in what he does every day."
She added, "I am just so happy. I'm so glad that the state got it right and picked the right teacher."
Many gifted teachers hit that "home run once or twice a week, but with Mark, it's every day, every class, so this is exciting for us," Earnest said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson announced Daniels' selection and presented him a check for $10,000 during the banquet Thursday evening.
He will compete with other states' teachers of the year in a national competition in 2022. Daniels will also participate in a number of state and national leadership opportunities.
Two Utah junior high teachers were named runners-up and were each awarded $4,000. They are: Katherine "Kasey" Bradbury, who teaches choir at Bountiful Junior High School in the Davis School District, and Albert Ferrarons Font, a Spanish dual immersion teacher at West Lake STEM Junior High School in the Granite School District.
A committee with representatives from parent and teacher advocacy organizations, charter schools and the Utah State Board of Education selects Utah's teacher of the year.
Daniels succeeds John Arthur, a fifth grade teacher at Salt Lake City's Meadowlark Elementary School, who was 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year and a finalist for national teacher of the year.
Teacher of the Year status gives educators a platform to speak out on educational matters that matter to them.
"To me, it's a no-brainer, the importance of the performing arts in education. There's so many studies show that when a kid can use their creative outlet, they can succeed in other things," Daniels said.
Daniels said he frequently asks theater Sterling Scholars if the time they've invested in the performing arts has helped or hindered their academic success.
All have told him it's been helpful "because they've learned discipline, they've learned how to be organized, they've used their creative outlet in other classes or creative skills they've created in other classes. I've never had that kid answer that question that it's hindered them," he said.
Former student Ashton Smith said Daniels "is dedicated to his teaching and his theater department at Weber. Hundreds of students benefit from it every single year."
Throughout Smith's years at Weber High, Daniels rarely took days off and begged to come back as soon as possible when he missed rehearsals or classes.
Abigail J. Rigby, whose child was taught by Daniels, said he is in a league of his own.
"His enthusiasm, love, and passion for teaching has garnered no competition," Rigby said.