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Jason Olson, Deseret News
Eric Kern is greeted by his former students after being presented with an award by a representative of the U.S. Department of Education.

SPANISH FORK — When former teacher Eric Kern walked into the gymnasium at Rees Elementary on Thursday, the cheering got so out of hand the kindergartners had to plug their ears.

That was before any of the teachers, students (or even Kern himself) found out the U.S. Department of Education had selected him as this year's Utah American Star of Education.

After that news got out, the U.S. Department of Education official who came to Spanish Fork to present the award had to give the assembled children the "quiet signal" to calm the whooping and hollering.

More than 5,000 teachers were nominated for the award, which recognizes excellence in innovation, dedication to student improvement and implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. One teacher from each state is honored.

"When I saw Mr. Kern come into the room and I saw your reaction, I knew we had made exactly the right choice," said Carolyn Snowbarger, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's teacher-to-teacher initiative. "With all the energy and excitement I felt in here, I would have thought we were at 'American Idol' or a football game."

Snowbarger said she's never seen students respond to a teacher in such a way, but once Kern stood up to accept his award, it wasn't hard to pinpoint why children find him so endearing. As soon as he took the microphone, Kern gave a whoop of his own, closing his eyes and waving his arms in uninhibited jubilation.

"This is so much more than a pat on the back," Kern said. "To me, this means children are learning to love learning, and that's my goal."

Kern has been teaching for eight years, three of which he spent as a first-grade teacher at Rees Elementary. He left the school last year to take a job as an instructional coach for Nebo School District.

Former students, stoked to see their favorite teacher back on school grounds, mobbed Kern after the assembly to give him hugs and high fives.

"Mr. Kern is funny," said Gabby Paslay, 7, who was in his class last year. "That's why I like him."

Paslay said Kern stayed after school to help her with her reading — something co-workers said the teacher did for many of his students. During his time at Rees Elementary, Kern specialized in working with children who struggled with literacy.

"He's very skilled at identifying students' needs," said Mike Larsen, the school's principal. "He takes the time to assess each child individually in order to find a way to reach them."

Kern was always on the lookout for ways he could help the rest of the school with literacy as well, Larsen said. He wrote grants to secure resources for the school, such as a listening center and a library of oversize books.

Teachers who worked alongside Kern said his enthusiasm for teaching was inspiring.

Annette Windley, who also teaches first grade, said she wouldn't have survived her first year as a teacher if it weren't for Kern's mentorship. She still uses some of Kern's learning games and techniques — like the "tooty-ta dance," which helps children hone recall skills and get out the wiggles at the same time — in her own classroom.

"He is amazing," Windley said. "He can connect with almost any kid and convince them that learning is fun."

This is the fifth year the U.S. Department of Education has honored teachers as American Stars of Teaching. Two of the past three award recipients in Utah, including Kern, taught at Rees Elementary.

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