SALT LAKE CITY — A self-described “shy Korean boy,” John Arthur credits his junior high and high school teachers for helping him find his voice.
“If it wasn’t for them, one, I might not have made it through high school, but two, I certainly wouldn’t be a teacher and I wouldn’t have the guts to say anything that’s on my mind or my heart,” said Arthur, addressing the Utah State Board of Education Thursday, moments after being name Utah’s 2021 Teacher of the Year.
Now in his eighth year of teaching, Arthur teaches sixth grade at Meadowlark Elementary School, a Title I school in the Salt Lake City School District. It is there that he pays it forward, helping his students learn to advocate for children and immigrants through music videos that they produce together and share on their YouTube channel, 9thEvermore. Arthur’s students have received national recognition for their work.
“I feel so blessed. Children are the best people and teaching is the best job. There’s just no better way to spend a day than working with kids,” Arthur said.
Addressing the State School Board via Zoom, Arthur joked he was sporting a “COVID chic” outfit — gym shorts and a tuxedo jacket his mother bought him for his wedding.
His mother, who is from Korea, “always had this ambition I would wear this tuxedo after my wedding when I won an Oscar or something like that. This is as close as I’m ever going to get so I’m glad she gets to see it,” Arthur said.
While Arthur, who is teaching online as the Salt Lake City School District is solely offering remote instruction to start the school year, joked about his attire, he used his new platform to advocate for a more equitable education system.
“This is the perfect moment for us to think about what a nation should look like when this is all said and done, because we need to take care of each during this terrible time but also start planning and putting into place the steps that we need to to create a more equitable educational system,” he said.
“We should be doing everything we can, as we think about how we get our kids connected now. We also need to remember the students that were pushed out beforehand. We need to make sure that the school-to-prison pipeline is such a pre-COVID thing and makes no sense in the future,” said Arthur.
Arthur serves on the State School Board’s advisory committee on equity of educational services for students.
He also addressed the challenges of teaching school during a global pandemic.
“It’s hard to feel confident or sure about anything when everything feels conflicted and mixed up. I am both incredibly excited about the future of education, especially here in Utah, but also terrified of our present moment,” he said.
Arthur said he worried that he would feel disconnected from his students teaching online.
Instead, it’s pushed him out into the neighborhoods to “find them and reach out to them in order to make things work. I’ve done more home visits and called more parents and sent more texts and emails in the last seven months than I have in seven years.”
He and his students may be physically distanced, but “I feel in a lot of ways more connected as a teacher to my community than I have before.”
Ordinarily, Utah’s teacher of the year is announced at a banquet. But in the midst of the pandemic, that wasn’t possible.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson popped into Arthur’s classroom Thursday morning to inform him he had been selected as Utah’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, presenting him an oversized check for $10,000.
As she entered his classroom, Arthur was in the middle of an online lesson.
“He was so worried about making sure that they (his students) were being taught while they were on. It was amazing to watch him manage everything while we were punking him,” Dickson said.
Arthur said Dickson’s visit was a “warm and incredible surprise this morning but I’m incredibly grateful. I’m proud to bring this back to the Salt Lake City School District and Meadowlark Elementary.”
Arthur said he owes the recognition to five women: his wife, Stacey, his mother-in-law SuAnn Cannon who cares for their children while the couple works, his mom, Suka, and his current and former principals, Maggie Cummings and Heidi Greene. The Arthurs have two young daughters.
Arthur, who was a military brat who lived on Fort Douglas as a child, is a graduate of Brighton High School. His father was a military officer who met his mother when he was serving in Korea. The family moved to Utah when Arthur was about 8 years old.
Arthur credits his teachers for taking a personal interest in him and supporting him after his grandmother, who lived with his family, died.
“I stopped going to school in the middle of my junior year. Before that I was taking AP classes. I was a model student in most ways. But after my grandma passed away and some other things, I just sort of lost sight of any meaning in any of this. I just stopped going,” he said.
Brighton High social studies teacher Jim Hodges supported Arthur, he said. Instead of judging him for his frequent absences and occasional obnoxious behavior, he asked, “Are you OK?”
It’s something Arthur’s adopted in his own teaching, he said — checking in with his students and “treating kids like they are complicated and also humans.”
He knows it can make a difference between a student reaching their goals and falling between the cracks.
For Arthur, completing high school went “down to the wire. I had to do packets and everything else and now I’m Utah Teacher of the Year. Go figure.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Utah, Arthur worked as a substitute teacher and discovered his passion for working with children. He returned to college to earn a masters degrees in elementary education and special education from Westminster College.
Arthur is a National Board Certified Teacher, one of 438 Utah educators who have achieved that certification, according to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
He guides his students in creating music videos that they produce together and share on their YouTube channel, 9thEvermore. Arthur’s students have garnered national recognition as advocates for children and immigrants for their work.
“Arthur allows his students to take the lead in their work, coaching them as they craft their content and providing a platform for their work,” the Utah State Board of Education’s website states.
Meadowlark Assistant Principal Wayne Culley, in a statement, said Arthur works tirelessly to improve his teaching craft.
“He tutors students before and after school no matter which grade or school they are enrolled in. He helps future students in younger grades, students from Northwest (Middle School) and the high schools. Students and families know his generosity, love and dedication. He believes in all students no matter their past or current struggles,” he said.
Felicia Raybourne, whose daughter was taught by Arthur, said he helps students through life.
“He makes sure his students understand everything they are learning no matter how much extra time it takes. Mr. Arthur took my daughter to chess and debate tournaments, opportunities I never thought she’d have. She also learned to take school seriously, and now she enjoys school so much,” Raybourne said in a statement.
An adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Education at Westminster College, Arthur works with students training to become teachers.
Arthur holds endorsements in K–6 special education, specializing in students with mild/moderate disabilities, and English as a Second Language. He presents at conferences and has spoken on panels for organizations such as the National Association for Multicultural Education and the Utah Education Association.
Arthur said teachers are professionals who dedicate their lives to educating and uplifting children. Right now, they’re in survival mode.
This is a time for everyone to do their best be kind to one another, he said.
“I’ve had students who have been in crisis my entire career and dealing with trauma. Right now, it just feels like that’s all of us. You know, we’re all in a time of crisis. ... Grace under fire doesn’t mean you don’t cry. If you’re cracking jokes right now to stay happy, that’s good. Just try and make sure they’re kind-hearted ones.”
As Utah’s 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year, Arthur will represent the state in the National Teacher of the Year Program in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Copper Hills High School American Sign Language teacher Rae Boren and Eastmont Middle School career and technical education teacher Emma Moss were named Teacher of the Year runners-up and will each receive $4,000.