Fulton Middle School teacher Melody Hapner has been named the VFW District Teacher of the Year.
"I'm humbled and overwhelmed," Hapner said Thursday. "It was very surprising to have my name put in for the award."
The award recognizes teachers who've promoted patriotism and respect for veterans in their communities. After earning the honor from the Fulton VFW, Post 2657. Hapner went up against nominees from the 19 other VFWs in the district, each of which can nominate up to three teachers. Unless the ceremony is snowed out, she'll be recognized in O'Fallon today.
Charles Williams, chair of the VFW scholarships program at the Fulton VFW, met Hapner after noticing many entrants to the VFW's Patriot's Pen competition came from the same classroom. Patriot's Pen is a contest where middle school students write a 300-to 500-word essay on a predetermined topic — this year, it's "Why I honor the flag." The top three winners get cash prizes.
Participation from schools has flagged in recent years, which is why the influx of entries from Hapner's English classroom surprised him.
"I had about 30 students enter," Hapner said. "Every time students finished an assignment early in class, I'd tell them, 'Work on your essay.'"
She also told them about a previous student who won the contest — a cash prize is a good motivator.
By comparison, only a single high -schooler entered a similar VFW contest for older students.
Hapner said her students seemed engaged with the topic, thanks to recent controversy about the appropriateness of kneeling during the national anthem. Some students struggled to keep their essays under the 500-word limit.
"I hoped they'd be able to look at the issue from both sides and consider the good and bad," Hapner said. "I wanted them to consider it themselves, apart from the influence of peers and parents, so I tried to be very neutral myself."
Williams decided he wanted to meet the teacher who helped make Patriots Pen such a success. She invited him to her classroom.
"I found out she's a fellow veteran, so I understood her passion behind it," Williams said.
Hapner was raised by a single mother who worked three job to keep the household afloat. She joined the Air Force after graduating from high school.
"I wanted to make my life my own," Hapner said. "I hadn't really been outside Michigan at this point, and there I was flying to Texas."
She spent 10 years in active duty and was stationed in Oklahoma City, Florida and England. Following her time in the Air Force, Hapner remained in the National Guard for another 10 years.
Williams was also raised by a single parent and joined the U.S. Navy at age 17. He admired Hapner's philosophy of encouraging critical thinking in her students.
"If we can influence the kids to respect themselves and their country we can teach them it's OK to disagree, but we still have to live together," Williams said.
He decided to nominate her for the Teacher of the Year award.
"I had to write a 350-word essay, just like the kids," he said.
Next year, he hopes to encourage more participation among high school students for the Voice of Democracy contest. There's also a VFW art contest — the top three national winners get their art used for Hallmark cards.
Teachers and other individuals interested in learning more about VFW contests can reach Williams at 573-310-1938.