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Two area outstanding Granite teachers, one principal applauded for education excellence

Aug 02, 2022 10:26AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Three area top educators in Granite School District were recently honored amongst their peers and students for their excellence.

Twin Peaks special education teacher Colette Madsen, Cottonwood High School English teacher Kathy Hess and Woodstock Elementary Principal Brenda Byrnes were each surprised to learn of the honor.

“They said it was an assembly and the kids like going to the assemblies and I was thinking, ‘I didn’t even know we had one,’” Madsen said. “I was heading down with them and then was told I needed to pop into the office about switching money in an account. I'm like, ‘I don't have that money,’ but I was told to sign this form—and I realize now, it was a fake form. So, I hurried right into the assembly, and I was like, ‘Why is there a camera in my face?’ I totally didn’t know.”


Each year the Granite Education Foundation, in partnership with the Granite School District, awards nine teachers and one administrator an Excel Award of $1,000 apiece. Each awardee was nominated by either a student, parent or colleague.

Granite School District Family and Community Engagement Director Jadee Talbot said more than 1,500 nominations were submitted this year.


“Nominees are then invited to submit an application to be considered for the next round,” he said. “From the applications, the list is narrowed down to a finalist list.”


Then, the Excel committee visited classrooms before the winners—who represent the 2,961 teachers at 87 schools—were announced.


“I was nominated and applied, and they did the observations; it was all before winter vacation and in January, so I never gave it another thought,” Madsen said. “I still can’t believe this. I’m still kind of numb.”

The 15-year veteran teacher originally planned to be a commercial artist.

“When my daughter went to kindergarten, I started working at the school where she was going because I had to go and pick her up and I fell in love with special education,” she said.

Through an alternative learning route, she was able to gain her education while being a paraeducator in Jordan School District. After she graduated, she was offered a position at Twin Peaks, where she has taught for 13 years.

“I was extremely happy, and I can still do art with the kiddos. They’re visual learners so I can bring that in with the way I teach and communicate. A lot of our students are non-verbal and because they think in pictures, not words, we use a lot of pictures, picture schedules, picture communication. It is very much visual, and the kids are so fun. When you know how they learn, a bit slower and in a different way, you’re able to adapt the teaching. There are days when you watch them succeed; you watch the little milestones,” said the kindergarten through second-grade teacher. “I just love teaching.”


“It was quite a shock,” Hess said as she watched her husband, children and grandchildren file into her classroom along with other district and school personnel. “We had read ‘Frankenstein’ and a student was just ending her presentation and sharing a beautiful drawing when everybody started coming in. It was still for about 10 seconds, then I realized what was going on. It was just kind of overwhelming.”

Along with observations and paperwork, Hess had shared with the Excel committee her teaching vision and why she loves it. She also shared the focus for inclusivity and voice she incorporates in her teaching.

“The focus is on how do I find my voice and then, when I find my voice, what can I do with my voice? What is the purpose of not just tolerance, but inclusivity?” she said. “We worked on acquiring graphic novels for a fundamentals class so that they can read some of the classics more on their reading level. We want students to be able to read more books on a social justice platform so they can become involved. They've chosen books that they are reading, they’re getting into groups, and they will be diving into social justice issues that are so important for them. They see what's going on in the world and they've got a voice and know that they matter.”

Through reading, Hess said students are looking at social issues and becoming more understanding.

“I have found they are much more accepting and tolerant of others’ perspectives. Their perspectives have just not been tarnished, and we're not only recognizing what the problem is, but also that they have got some very keen ideas on what social justice should look like in the world. So, we have about 10 minutes where we talk about your perspective and open up for two minutes. There are those that would prefer not sharing vocally, so I give them an opportunity to write some of their questions or concerns on a paper. But everyone has an opportunity to share in this atmosphere that is safe,” she said, adding that she has been an advisor to a school mental health club that was started by some students and offers her room as a safe atmosphere for students.

Even though she has ways to acknowledge students, Hess said she was surprised for being acknowledged herself.

“I certainly feel honored,” Hess said. “I recognize how much the District cares for teachers. Granite is a huge supporter of the teaching profession and of the students.”


Byrnes was meeting with a director in a windowless room in the library. She had a long day, and a student wanted her help.

“It is funny because I almost didn't go into the meeting because I was wanting to help a student,” she said. “But the director, she was kind of like, ‘let's do this. Then we'll circle back around to help that student.’ Her job was to get me locked away in this room so students could come in the gym. Then, they told me that there was an incident in the gym so they needed me. I walked in there having no idea. I did hear noise, but we have PE on Monday, so I just thought something happened in PE. I was completely shocked.”

Byrnes first saw her family, then Granite School District Superintendent Rich K. Nye holding a congratulatory sign.

“I knew I had been nominated for the award. So, at that point, I figured it out pretty fast, and the kids were so cute. They were just screaming and cheering for me; it was really fun and so sweet how happy and excited they were for me,” she said. “I got teary-eyed and emotional. It's a huge honor and something that I never thought I would win.”


Byrnes, who taught second grade at West Valley Elementary, just completed her fifth year as Woodstock’s principal. She also has served as assistant principal at Cyprus High and Eisenhower Junior High.


“I wanted to have a bigger impact, to be able to help more kids so I became an administrator. So even though leaving the classroom was hard, because you're one step removed from the kids, I did it so I could work with the adults, and the adults are going to be working with the kids, so I realized, we’ll have a bigger impact on them,” she said.


Now she is leaving her principal position to hire teachers for the district, so they, too, can have a positive impact on students.


“This all has just been a big circle of emotions,” she said. “I am very honored.”