Waldo Warnick cares as much about what a student thinks of himself as he does about how that student performs in Warnick's class.

The 1991 Utah Teacher of the Year pegs pervasive low self-esteem as the biggest challenge facing teachers today, a low esteem that numbs too many students' desire to learn."My goal used to be to prepare a student with some basic skills that would employ him. But I think the important thing now is that kids' self-esteem improve," Warnick said. "If they don't feel good about themselves, they aren't going to function in society."

Warnick sees a strong link between self-esteem and learning. Shoddy self-esteem dulls youngsters' passion for new experiences, he said.

Warnick, a drafting teacher at the Delta Technical Center, was honored as the teacher of the yearby the Utah State Office of Education at a luncheon in Salt Lake City Tuesday. Marilyn Cole Wenzel, an English teacher at Dixie High School, and Kathleen B. Petersen, an English teacher at San Rafael Junior High, were runners-up in the statewide search for teaching excellence.

Warnick grew up on the austere land of central Utah. A big, rugged man with an understated manner, he claims to "have a lot of good alkali" in his blood. He taught his first two years on the Wasatch Front. Missing the quiet, alkaline land of central Utah, he returned to Millard County.

"This is home. I love the people. I love the kids. I love working with them."

The relative isolation of Delta has not kept Warnick from having a statewide impact in his field. He has been honored as the Utah Industrial Education Teacher of the Year; served on the Utah Statewide Educational Planning Commission and the Governor's Blue Ribbon Committee for Vocational Education; and worked as the president of the Utah Building Construction and Woodworking Teachers Association.

But his impact on the lives of Delta youngsters won him Tuesday's honor. Warnick uses simple means to mold those lives. He calls it the proj-ect method of teaching. He invites students to pick a wood project, then as he helps them complete that proj-ect, he teaches them the skills he wants them to have.

He means life skills as much as woodworking skills. Words like quality, excellence and hard work appear on his bulletin boards. Warnick tries to make those words take shape in students' lives while their wood proj-ects take form during his class.

"He's made me grow up a little more. I don't act as immature," said student Matt Nichols, who is taking his third class from Warnick. This year Nichols is building the top half of a china hutch from walnut. Last year in Warnick's class, he built the bottom half.

"I'm going to give it to my mom," Nichols said.

Warnick helped Nichols shape his future while teaching him to shape walnut. After three years of Warnick's class, Nichols has decided he wants to be a cabinetmaker.

Warnick doesn't just touch individuals, he touches whole families. "Both of my brothers took his classes, and I liked what they built," Nichols said by way of explanation for his own presence in Warnick's class.

"My brother took this class. He said it was a real good class to get into," Shaun Jeffery said, accounting for his presence there.

"Mr. Warnick works well with all the kids, not just the kids who get good grades," said student Jenniffer Bird, who signed up for the class to build a cedar chest.

The students described Warnick as caring and jovial but demanding. "He's a real friend, but he still gets his point across and he doesn't let you get away with anything," Jenniffer said. "Like talking out of turn."

A candid man, Warnick acknowledges his fear that despite public education's higher graduation standards, schools seem to demand less learning from students these days than in years past. Concepts once taught in one math class are now spread out over two, he said.

He worries about the wide swath of extracurricular activities that repeatedly cut through the school day. And he's fearful that teachers, administrators, parents and legislators aren't all on the same team. They need to be to help today's kids.

"A lot of kids are hurting inside. Kids need reading, writing and arithmetic. There's no doubt about that. But they need to have success, too. There are a lot of kids who aren't having success. You can't see it in their eyes," he said.

So Warnick teaches his students to carve wood as it spins on a lathe and to like themselves; to smooth an edge with a plane and to see the link between hard work and success; to size a slab of rough lumber and to see the potential in themselves.

Shaun Jeffery has been Warnick's student for only six weeks. Asked what makes Warnick different from the other teachers he's had, Jeffery thought a moment then said, "He makes you feel welcome."

Warnick would like that answer.