Award-Winning Teacher Passes Passion for Civic Engagement to Her Students

By Dianna Troyer

Kathy Durham has a discussion with student Anahi Soriano
Kathy Durham has a discussion with student Anahi Soriano. Photo by Kameron Keith.

Kathy Durham was blown away when she learned she won a statewide teaching award last year and was a finalist for 2019 Nevada Teacher of the Year.

“I was honored, humbled and excited to bring some positive attention to our school and community,” says Kathy, who teaches U.S. history and American government at West Wendover High School. “To me, the awards reflect the hard work of our staff. No one in education can be great on her own. It takes all of us working together as a team.”

Nevada’s Advisory Committee on Participatory Democracy honored Kathy with its Jean Ford Democracy Award in the education category. Jean Ford was a Nevada legislator who began her political career as a volunteer and citizen activist. The award program that bears her name recognizes the exemplary service and leadership of Nevada citizens who have benefited their communities, state and nation through participation and leadership in furthering the democratic process.

Kathy tries to impress upon her students the value of civic engagement, encouraging them to participate in local government or volunteer in their communities.

“Go to city council meetings; see what’s going on,” she says. “Then ask, ‘What can I do?’”

Much to Kathy’s satisfaction, former students have applied the democratic lessons she taught them at local and national venues.

Daniel Corona, West Wendover’s mayor since 2016, says Kathy sparked his interest in politics and community service when she was his American history teacher in seventh grade.

“She encouraged us to do our civic duty but didn’t do it in a preachy way,” he says. “We all have an important role to play in our democracy. She made history fun and interesting. She found ways to explain how historical events are relevant and linked to current events.”

Kathy was elected to the West Wendover City Council in 2018. “We’re lucky to have her in school and on the city council,” Daniel says. Colton Smith, a 2018 WWHS graduate, worked for Chris Stewart, a Republican representing Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, last summer in Washington, D.C.

“Colton’s very determined and has had a game plan for quite some time,” Kathy says. “He’s realizing his dreams and being a rock star in the process.”

Last fall, Kathy was among four finalists for Nevada Teacher of the Year. The Nevada Department of Education sponsors the award to recognize teachers who are dedicated to their students’ success.

While she appreciates the accolades, Kathy says other honors are equally important.

“One of my proudest moments as a teacher happened four years ago,” she says. “Three students invited me to the library to watch them vote for the first time. They were so happy and proud. To me it was everything—to see students take what they learned in the classroom to the world beyond our school.”

“When you show students you care, they work so hard in return. Teaching is about relationships.” – Kathy Durham

Kathy, a West Wendover teacher since 2000, says she has at least eight years left to influence students before she considers retiring.

“I’m 56 — how did that happen?” she asks. “The voice in my head still feels like 30. I’m so blessed to make a living from my passion, and my passion is trying to be the best teacher I can be. I want to be the Donovan Mitchell of the classroom,” she says, referring to the tenacious basketball player from her favorite team, the Utah Jazz.

Kathy says she will teach her students about two important issues in 2020: the presidential election and the national census.

“The census is vital for us because it determines representation and allocation of federal funding,” she says. “Our town is among the most undercounted in the state and nation, so we need to get kids involved to spread the word at home about how important it is to fill out the census forms.”

Kathy hopes her students understand their responsibility “to preserve our democratic republic,” she says. “Our form of government depends on an informed and involved electorate.”

Kathy teaches a curriculum called “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution.” Developed by the nonprofit Center for Civic Education, it focuses on giving students an understanding of the ideals and laws enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. When they were published, the principles in those documents were revolutionary.

“The Declaration is the most beautiful breakup letter of all time,” Kathy says. “In the first sections, it spells out how the relationship between government and its people should work. The Constitution’s preamble describes the core values of the American identity. That these documents still resonate with us today shows they can withstand the test of time.”

The curriculum culminates with students staging a congressional hearing.

“The kids really like the curriculum because they’re required to apply information and critical thinking skills in various scenarios,” she says.

Kathy says she feels energized when she develops lesson plans to encourage critical thinking. She attributes her teaching style to University of Utah history professor Dr. Harold Bauman.

“He had such a profound impact on my life,” she says.

“For a final class project, he encouraged me to teach a lesson instead of write a paper. I realized what a blast it is to teach and earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies teacher education. I’m forever grateful for his insights and for my dad encouraging me to go to college.”

In celebration of Presidents’ Day this month, Kathy is sharing her favorite fun facts about U.S. presidents with her students. John Quincy Adams, for example, used to bathe naked in the Potomac River. A reporter once sat on his clothes and refused to hand them over until he agreed to an interview.

Kathy plans to continue teaching as long as she can.

“I love developing curriculum, but most of all I love the kids here,” she says. “When you show them you care, they work so hard in return. Teaching is about relationships first. If you don’t connect with the kids, it doesn’t matter how much you know.”