Enjoy this article that appeared in the City Journals.
One South Valley
couple has influenced thousands of people by teaching middle school science fundamentals for about three decades.
Collectively Dawn and Todd Monson have taught nearly 16,000 students during their careers. Their previous students range in age from new teenagers to people in their 30s and 40s.
“I teach because when the kids figure something out and are able to make those connections and apply it to their lives and find out they can do hard things; it is just amazing,” said Dawn, who retired in June after 34 years in the classroom.
Dawn was almost finished with her pre-veterinarian program in college, when she decided to change courses and become a science teacher. She began her teaching career at Oquirrh Hills Middle School, and moved to a couple other schools before arriving South Hills Middle School around 10 years ago.
Todd graduated from Utah State University in Forestry and worked for the U.S. Forest Service, but once he decided forestry wasn’t something he wanted to pursue long-term, his wife convinced him to try substitute teaching. He acquired a job at Oquirrh Hills Middle School through Utah’s alternative teacher preparation program and began teaching science in the same classroom that Dawn had claimed almost 10 years before. He’s been teaching there ever since and will began his twenty-fifth year of teaching in August.
Deborah Ferwerda, who’s now grown with a family of her own, said even though it’s been so long since she took science from “Mr. Monson,” yet she still remembers how he cared about students individually. His passion for science and teaching set him apart from other teachers, she said.
KateLynn Jensen said Todd was her “all-time favorite teacher.” She still remembers how he used to wear a rubber duck-patterned lab coat when the weather was rainy and how he used to joke with the students in class.
“One time my mom called me when I was in class, and my phone wasn’t on silent so he said for me to answer if it was my mom, just joking like why would mom be calling during school, so I answered and he laughed and said ‘hi’ to her not mad at all,” Jensen said. “He was never in a bad mood or mean. He had his class rules, but nobody ever broke them more out of respect than anything.”
Students rave about Mr. Monson’s Mrs., too. Dawn is a teacher who leaves an impression, Lisa Whitehead said. It’s been 15 years since Whitehead was in middle school, and Dawn is one of the few she said she remembers.
“When I was in Itinerous [Early College High School], I’d still refer back to things we did in her class,” JR Landeen said. “But really the biggest thing I learned from Mrs. Monson is that learning can be fun, and that’s a message that applies to everything. It doesn’t matter if you are doing everything right—just have fun.”
Both Monsons have won numerous awards. Todd’s been named Jordan School District Teacher of the Year, Jordan Education Association Teacher of Excellence and the Southwest Valley Chamber of Commerce Teacher of the Year. Dawn won the Huntsman Teacher of Excellence award, the State Biology Teacher of the Year tile and has been a three-time finalist in the national Presidential Award of Excellence for Math and Science Teaching.
Todd attributes a lot of their success in teaching to their partnership. Although they teach different courses, both teachers collaborate with each other to keep their content current.
“If you go back to wondering what it was that really brought us together, it was chemistry,” joked Todd, who was voted puniest teacher of 2016 by the students at his school.
Of all places, the couple met at a Utah State science camp where Todd was a participant and Dawn was the camp cook. Dawn’s fiancé and Todd’s girlfriend lived in the Salt Lake area, so Dawn and Todd forged a friendship from carpooling to and from Logan on the weekends.
One day during the camp, 20-something Todd was examining trees at a Utah State University forestry summer camp when he got what he thought was a bee sting on his thumb and subsequently began to lose muscular control and the ability to speak.
Todd was whisked away to a nearby hospital where medics determined he had been bitten by a black widow spider. In an attempt to help him, medical professionals gave Todd the wrong dosage of valium, which counteracted with the poison and sent him into a cardiac arrest.
As soon as the camp cook, Dawn, heard about the incident, she scurried over to the hospital where Todd’s Mom and girlfriend were already kneeling at his bedside.
“When I got to the hospital room, I realized it was costing me more in my heart than just him being one of the guys here that I was feeding,” Dawn said. “At that point, I knew I needed to call off my wedding because my feelings for him were too big—too big and too much.”
Todd stayed in the hospital for about a week, and each day Dawn visited to keep him company. That’s when Todd said he knew he needed to break-up with his girlfriend. Those events transpired 33 years ago, but it really set the tone for the rest of their lives together, Todd said.
“Since then, as we’ve been married and raised our family, and we’ve always oriented things around science,” Todd said.
As their two sons were growing up, it wasn’t uncommon to find frozen bug specimens in Ziploc bags within the freezer for studying, according to Todd. The Monson parents continually encouraged their children to explore and be curious.
Time has gone by fast, Dawn said. Their sons are now married, they have two grandchildren and Dawn officially retired after more than 30 years of teaching, but she continues to work for the district as a part-time teacher mentor and grant writer.
“It would be harder if I didn’t still have my finger in the door, because I still want to impact the students,” Dawn said as she cried. “It’s hard because I’ll miss it, but I want to move to being able to impact even more students and, by training teachers and by having an impact on the state level, I can do that, but it is hard.”
“In five years, when I retire, I’ll just be jumping up and down,” Todd said putting his arm around Dawn as she wiped away her tears. “No, I’m kidding. I’ll be crying too.”
Dawn said she’d love to get more involved with science Olympiad on a state level, or put more energy into the tutoring program that she and her husband have been establishing through their work as inner-city missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now that she is retired. Whatever the future holds, the Monsons will be championing science wherever they go.
“Science is fun, it really is,” Todd said, “And, like I always say, it’s all around you.”