Teacher Dawn Payton Killinger takes her work home every night, and she doesn't mind a bit.

"You never, ever shut the door. You take them home with you. There's a love," Killinger, or "Mrs. K," said of her students. "It's not like a mother who charges you to make your lunch."The enthusiasm of the middle school teacher at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School, and her love for students, helped earn her the honor of the Catholic Schools' Teacher of the Year of the Salt Lake Diocese.

She has been teaching just four years.

"I was humbled to think I was in the crowd I was in and (asked to) get up and accept this award. I was among people I admire," said Killinger, who teaches English and social studies to sixth- through eighth-graders.

She was chosen for the honor by parents and students.

"Still, every day, I have so many doubts and play it by ear. It's nice to think some of what I'm doing is on the money."

A University of Utah graduate, Killinger is to finish her master's degree in education from the University of Portland in August. She entered the field because of the children, whom she sometimes likes better than adults.

Her sole teaching job has been at St. Francis Xavier, a school enrolling about 280 preschoolers through eighth-graders and one of 12 schools in the diocese.

Principal Jim Mello hired Killinger in his premiere year at the school.

"What Dawn has is a freshness and spirit and ability to connect with kids," Mello said. "A lot of her energy comes from being new."

Her lessons are not the lecture-and-take-notes type but are interactive, with the students occasionally determining how long the class lingers on a subject.

The class now is planning a pretend trip to Australia as a way to research the continent. Students determine the best time to go, bring Australian food to class, put on skits using the Aussie dialect, and bring their own pictures of animals there.

"I like learning myself, which helps me relate to the learner," Killinger said.

Killinger's middle-level students are full of energy, just like anywhere else.

Middle-level education is the topic of much discussion in public education circles and at the Legislature. Children are mercurial at that age, and at-risk problems tends to magnify.

Killinger's students are no different. But it may be easier for her to keep them on the right path educationally because of her freedom to integrate morals into the curriculum.

But she also teaches the same group of children for three years, a concept being integrated in some public middle schools to help create more solid student-teacher relationships.

The system seems to help: One of Killinger's students wrote that middle school was fun because she had three years before she had to tell her teachers goodbye.

"There's a sense of community and understanding here," she said. "I think every seventh-grader is on the same stage of development. But the environment here fulfills more needs so they're not fulfilling needs in ways that are not appropriate."