2004 Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award


Presented to Sally Burt

Each year since 2000, the Nebraska Writing Project has given this award to a teacher whose career demonstrates our core values: that good teaching can draw better writing from students, that the best teachers of writing are writers themselves, and that teachers are the best teachers of other teachers. Carol MacDaniels, in whose memory this award was endowed, exemplified these values in her own life. This year's recipient is Sally Burt.

For the past seven years, Sally has taught composition and literature at Pius X High School in Lincoln, where she also co-sponsors the literature club and has developed the Wordstruck program. Her students recommend her as a teacher who will make you write better and who will care about your life. Her teaching colleagues praise her inspiration, excellence, and guidance. Within the Nebraska Writing Project network, Sally has served as Summer Institute facilitator, has co-created the three-year Embedded Institute partnership program at Pius X, and has helped a widening circle of Catholic educators see the potential of writing for their own and their students' growth. In short, in her work with students, teachers, and teacher development, Sally Burt exhibits the abilities we honor with this award.

Sally's students recognize her impact on their writing.Apparently Sally has developed quite the reputation in the halls of her high school. One current student explains: "Every Pius student knows that if you want an easy class with little learning, don't take Mrs. Burt's classes! Her students work hard, and are better writers and people because of her influence. We all learn from her nearly infinite wisdom, beautiful example, and critical editing of each paper."

Through her composition classes and programs like Wordstruck, Sally Burt draws students to the energy, joy, and insight of writing. Yet, for her students, writing is just a part of the package. In Sally's classes, writing, literature, and discussion are all aides in a wider process, the process of becoming "better people." One of Sally's students writes that Sally "has taught me more than she knows inside and outside of the classroom." Another writes "anything you ask Mrs. Burt will be heard, understood, and answered. If your interpretation of literature differs from hers, she listens with an open mind and might even change her position based on you." Sally's principal, in his letter supporting her nomination, notes this same quality to her work: "Sally makes it a priority to know her students both in the classroom and in their lives outside of school. She guides them with the love and caring of a "parent" and encourages them to develop their personal gifts as writers. She is truly a gift to her classes and to our school."

In short, Sally's teaching strives for the development of the whole person, using writing and literature as important aspects in that process. In keeping with the best tradition of Catholic education, her teaching guides students on "their journey to maturity" (as her principal puts it).

Those of you who know the full history of Sally's teaching career probably aren't surprised at this portrayal of her teaching. After all, like many women who entered teaching in the 1960s, Sally's career as teacher bracketed another career as mother. According to the guidance counselor at Pius X, Sally Burt's first teaching assignment was at Lincoln High School in 1965 and 1966, followed by a hiatus of over 25 years during which time she raised six sons. One of her teaching colleagues writes: "The phenomenal part of Sally—and she truly is a phenomenal woman—is that she did not re-enter education until the late 90s, after raising to manhood six exemplary men who give back to their communities just as compassionately and fervently as Sally does."

When her principal compares Sally's mentoring of students to the love, caring, and encouragement of a "parent," he is recognizing how she, as teacher, has tapped into the energy and wisdom of her other career.

Sally's approach to writing may emerge from the same well as her teaching. She teaches from her whole experience as a person. From what I know of Sally, she embraces writing because the work of words helps in that whole experience. To prepare for this presentation, I went back through my Summer Institute anthology for 2000, the first year Sally participated in the Nebraska Writing Project. Her published writing from that summer indicates the personal significance of writing: she included family history in both prose and poetry, and two prayers, one written for guidance and one for celebration. Clearly Sally Burt takes writing seriously, and is both brave enough and open enough to use it in the deepest areas of her life. Sally was the only teacher from a Catholic school in her first Summer Institute. The next year, largely through her recruitment efforts, we had five Catholic school teachers. This year, she co-developed an Embedded Institute at Pius X, with plans for a three year partnership. She's clearly brought the message of writing to the Catholic school system, a message based on the personal growth available through working with words.

To give you a sense of this personal growth, I would like to end by quoting some of Sally's own writing. Many of you remember the "I am from" poems that have swept through our state and classrooms in the past few years. I would like to read a few stanzas from a version of an "I am from" poem Sally wrote in 2001, while facilitating a Summer Institute. The whole poem is four pages long, and I'm sure Sally has revised it since, so I won't read the whole thing. But I think these stanzas capture what's important in Sally's writing and teaching, as expressed by Sally's students. I think you'll hear in these words Sally's commitment to whole-person connection, to the value of parenthood, and to the central place of spirituality:

Excerpt from Rooted in Love

by Sally Burt 2001

I'm from the fields of Norway,
of boat trips cross the Atlantic,
Pennsylvania coal fields, and Iowa corn fields,
of Indians and Fort Kearney.
From pre-Revolutionary Americans
come from the Swiss mountains.
I find solace on front porch rainy days,
snuggling in Grandma's feather bed
watching the streaks of lightning
flash and thunder strong messages of power. . . .

I'm from the Doxology sung at every community picnic
and from overnight stays with my best friend,
the Lutheran minister's daughter.
I'm from starving for forbidden hot dogs on every
Friday night game,
and boys forbidden to date me.
I'm from riding the rural route with my Dad
helping count the pheasants with
brilliant teal shining in the sun,
handing him the mail,
praying the rosary starting at the south
canyon road, and finishing before
the cemetery. . . .

I'm from baby boys and basketballs
and washing till eleven . . . .
I'm from State championships, college scholarships,
sweaty socks and blaring rock,
hiding cupcakes behind curtains assuring their fair share.
I'm from telephones incessantly ringing,
after-shave, tuxedos, starring roles in some plays,
illegal parties, guitars, pool sharks, biking, then cars.
Love ya, Mom and I can do it myself.
I'm from Baptisms, Confirmations, and Thank you, God
in their prayers.
I'm from rocking, and smiling, cheering all on to life. . . .

Sally Burt has indeed cheered many on to life. Please join me in honoring Sally Burt as the 2004 Nebraska Writing Project Teacher of the Year.

Robert Brooke
Director, NeWP
30 April 2004