Jan earned her way into this spot through blood, sweat and a lot of tears.
Teacher heads to hall of fame
LISA LARSON • firstname.lastname@example.org • Published: April 10. 2011
During Jan Hunsaker's first year of teaching - a time when she says she felt "exhausted beyond mortal comprehension" at the overwhelming scope of responsibilities on her plate - she was thumbing through the National Educational Theatre Association's Teaching Theatre Journal and saw the nominations for the organization's national hall of fame. She wondered what made these teachers so much better than she, other than the fact that they seemed old.
"I said, 'I'm tired too. Just because you're old and tired doesn't make you anymore valuable than me,'" Hunsaker, the current artistic director at Tuacahn High School, recalls.
Now, 21 years later, Hunsaker was recently nominated to the National Educational Theatre Association's (EdTA) National Hall of Fame, an honor that has her feeling humbled, and a little old.
"It's total karma," Hunsaker says, laughing about her thoughts during that first year.
At the time Hunsaker didn't know that one stipulation for the nomination is to have at least 20 years teaching experience and to be nominated by either yourself or a colleague. In Hunsaker's case the nomination came from her colleague and husband, Andy Hunsaker, who submitted Jan's name and list of her accomplishments on the sly.
"I know Jan is known to be one of the best teachers in the state and the nation," Andy says. "I wanted to nominate her not only as her husband but as her colleague. It was well deserved and it needed to be said."
He started pumping her for information to complete the nomination but since the couple has only been married five years, Jan says she didn't suspect anything.
"I just thought we were talking about old theater stories," she says.
Stories included details on her early years in her career, starting out as a debate teacher at Davis High School in northern Utah and then moving to Lake Ridge Junior High and then to Mountain Ridge Junior High where she worked with a principal she particularly admired named Sheldon Worthington.
"He said 'a high school is only as strong as its arts department (because) they're the ones who love school,'" Jan says of one of Worthington's philosophies that really drew her to him.
When Worthington was offered a position at Lehi High School he agreed with the stipulation that he bring Jan along to "fix the arts department" at the school, a project that earned Jan the reputation as one who could go into places and build up programs that were struggling.
That reputation eventually reached the ears of Hyrum Smith, founder of Tuacahn Center for the Arts. He sought Jan out after viewing her students' production of "Fiddler on the Roof" in November 2004.
Jan remembers well this man whom she did not yet know walking up to her and shaking her hand and saying "You're not going to work at this school much longer." In a strange "aha" moment, Jan answered by saying, "you're right."
Three months later she left Lehi High and came to Tuacahn High School, once again with the charge to build.
Tuacahn High artistic director Jan Hunsaker poses on the set of "Stage Door," the most recent production she's directed for the school. (Jud Burkett / The Spectrum)
Although Jan's passion today is theater, especially the "miracle" that is high school theater, she wasn't always drawn to the stage.
As a seventh and eighth grader Jan was a "total book nerd," she says, resulting in an award for reading more than 25,000 pages during her eighth grade year. Her mother, who Jan says was a social butterfly, was worried about Jan's lack in the social area so in ninth grade she made her sign up for a drama class.
"That was the end of it," Jan says of a class that pulled her out of her shell and gave her a confidence that hadn't come from having her nose in a book.
She still has a love of theater literature, counting William Shakespeare as one of her personal heroes, but her zest for her job and theater comes from the interactions she has with students and the projects and memories they've shared.
In 2001, she took a group of 40 students to perform at the Fringe Festival in Edinborough, Scotland.
"It was life changing," Jan says of a trip that included performing one of Shakespeare's plays in the famous Globe Theater.
Another highlight in Jan's career happened this year when her students produced a play written by Jan called "When," and performed it in conjunction with the Alzheimer's Association of St. George.
"It was a huge service learning opportunity," she says.
"It taught them that sometimes theater isn't all about me," Andy added.
Whether the production is written by Jan or a well-known piece - such as the year she and the Tuacahn Summer Theater Institute tackled "Les Miserables" - Jan and Andy typically log 85 to 90 hour weeks several times each year, up from their regular work week of about 60 hours.
"We knew that going in," Jan says of the job that not only yields opportunities to direct plays but to shape students lives by teaching them life skills.
"They learn how to do (things) right," Jan says.
"We say don't settle for mediocrity," Andy says.
A philosophy that seems to go hand-in-hand with the kinds of teachers nominated for the EdTA Hall of Fame.
"I feel a little intimidated," Jan says of the award. "I've read the articles about these other teachers and they have done so much. I'm humbled by the whole experience."
However, receiving the award has "revitalized" Jan as a teacher and now she's even more excited to give back to the students she enjoys so much.
"More than anything, we have the best kids," Jan says of the Tuacahn High School students. "The kids have trusted us so they've let me say, 'there's nothing you can't do' and then we do that."
Jan will receive the national hall of fame award in September during a banquet in Chicago. In addition to being listed in the EdTA Teaching Theater magazine her name will be put on a plaque in the EdTA headquarters office in Cincinnati.