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The City Journals

Meet Archer Birrell: Granite’s Teacher of the Year

Jul 25, 2018 03:18PM ● By Travis Barton

Archer Birrell shakes hands with Superintendent Martin Bates at a surprise assembly where Birrell was named Granite School District’s Teacher of the Year. (Courtesy Granite School District)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Archer Birrell is easy to find at Hillside Elementary. 

Whether it’s his classroom filled with pine trees, his bearded dragon Link or his unstoppable movement. 

Principal Sharon Sonnenreich has spent three years with Birrell—two as his principal at Hillside and one as a fellow teacher at Elk Run Elementary. “My first impression was, ‘Does this guy ever sit down?’ Archer is an incredible ball of energy.”

That boundless “ball of energy” was named the 2018 Granite School District Teacher of the Year. 

“I can't think of anyone who deserved being teacher of the year for the district more,” Sonnenreich said. 

Birrell, a Holladay resident, said it was a “really fun” surprise when the district appeared at a special assembly in May where he was awarded with gas gift cards from Chevron, a free iPad from Granite Credit Union, a free round-trip flight from JetBlue and free tickets to a Utah Grizzlies hockey game. 

“I was grateful,” Birrell said of the award. “I know that I give 110 percent to my job. To be recognized and appreciated for it, it's just a gift, it's a blessing.”

“It's humbling too,” he continued. “Just a really neat experience to say, ‘Wow! What I'm doing is making a difference and the hard work I'm putting in has paid off and people are actually appreciative of what I do.’” 

Becoming a teacher 

At just 32, Birrell has enjoyed the journey that’s led him to where he’s at. A journey with life lessons for anyone in any field, most appropriate for a school teacher. 

As a child, he had two dreams—be an astronaut or elementary teacher. “‘Star Trek’ was the astronaut influence and the parents were the teacher influence because they were both school teachers,” he said. 

His parents encouraged him to explore everything before settling on a career, and he almost did. Literally. 

In what Birrell described as “the longest journey ever to get through school,” he went through every major that tickled his fancy including psychology, recreation management and medical science. 

“I probably looked at a dozen or so different paths and came back around” full circle to be a school teacher, he said. 

It took almost 10 years before he graduated from UVU. Now, he’s been teaching seven years and earned a master’s degree three years ago in curriculum and instruction. Education was his calling. 

“I had to look at what I was passionate about, what I thought I was going to really be interested in, what I've always wanted to do,” said Birrell. “When it came down to making a decision, it just felt right. I finally was able to commit to that idea, find a path that worked for me and just go straight forward through it. After that [college] was fast.” 

Birrell joined GSD, starting out with an internship at James E. Moss Elementary in Millcreek before moving onto Elk Run (four years) and now Hillside (two years) where he continues to make waves with his teaching ability. 

Being a teacher

It may only be seven years so far, but Birrell learned possibly his most important lesson as a teacher during his first week. 

A 6-year-old student had sat quietly for an hour when he started crying. “He says, ‘I want to do the right thing, but I’m having the hardest time sitting still,’” Birrell remembered. 

Kids need movement, he said, so it’s important to build a schedule of “purposeful breaks” that sets their bodies (and minds) in motion. 

One year he took a math lesson on angles and split the third-grade class into two Star Wars themed teams – Darth Vader versus Yoda—and ended it with a lightsaber dance off. 

“They had so much fun with it,” Birrell said. “They worked together to solve problems to see which side of the force would overcome the balance of the galaxy. I'm having fun with it because I love outer space, and they're having fun with it because they're doing something unique.”

But in the end, they’re learning about acute angles. 

“There's an art and a science to teaching,” Birrell said. “The science of course is what makes the child learn the specific skill you're teaching them. The art is how you're going to present what engages and excites them and makes it be a fun time.” 

Sonnenreich has witnessed his ability with kids on multiple occasions. 

She said he asks lots of questions, showing students they can “think their way to the answer.” The feedback Birrell gives students, his love for each kid and his technical ability as a teacher all make him a great teacher, added Sonnenreich. 

“He’s just got a great combination of those people skills, attitude, (and) technical skills as a teacher,” she said. 

Birrell’s teaching philosophy is to have fun. Kids are fun, he says, and teaching allows his creativity to flourish. 

He has lights that change colors, cutout clouds on the ceiling, fake pine trees, a grizzly bear, plants everywhere. Anything to make the classroom feel like a forest.

“You go in there and you just feel peaceful,” he said. “If I set the environment to be a peaceful mindset, the learning is going to take place.”

He has two class pets, a bearded dragon and a beta fish. He plays music, sometimes classical, sometimes positive and empowering pop music. “Whatever sets the mood for what we’re doing,” he said. 

He does “nice wars” with other classes, where students “play nice pranks” on them in sneaky ways such as leaving gifts or positive notes. 

“I always teach the kids, if we have to go to war we might as well make them nice wars.” 

These battles of kindness add to the bigger picture for the school, just as how he runs the summer school program and is its after school coordinator. 

“He really tries to help everybody so that every child entrusted to our building is having the best possible experience they can,” Sonnenreich said. 

Future as a teacher 

Birrell wants to spend his entire career with GSD. He said he’ll keep his options open for other opportunities within the district, especially if it allows him to give more service to more people — teachers and students.  

But for now, he’s excited for another school year this fall, where he’ll be moving to the fourth grade. 

“I love teaching and that’s where I want to be.”