Mary Kurt-Mason, Special Talents teacher at Pagosa Springs High School, officially received one of six PEOPLE Magazine Teacher of the Year awards yesterday for her unique and inspiring work with special education students.
Selected from a large pool of applicants by PEOPLE editors and a board of educational professionals, Kurt-Mason will be featured in the Oct. 28 issue of PEOPLE, available on newsstands around the country starting Friday.
According to a press release from Julie Farin at PEOPLE Magazine, Kurt-Mason will receive $5,000, $4,000 of which will be given to the high school and $1,000 of which she can keep as a reward for her dedication to creating an innovative outdoor program for special education students.
In an interview with The SUN, Kurt-Mason relayed a favorite quote spoken by Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer: “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit at home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
Getting busy is exactly what Kurt-Mason and her students, some of whom are nonverbal, non-ambulatory, blind, and have developmental or emotional issues, do every day.
First inspired while in high school to teach special education by a volunteer experience at a school for students with disabilities, Kurt-Mason has worked to integrate outdoor education into her teaching, allowing her students to take risks and conquer their fears. This process, she explained, engenders courage, confidence and independence.
When asked about to explain her background with outdoor sports, Kurt-Mason described how she has always been a tomboy.
“I grew up running in the woods and swimming in the ocean,” Kurt-Mason said. Her personal love for the outdoors and familiarity with the exhilaration of overcoming challenges and fears has inspired her to incorporate outdoor activities into her teaching. According to Kurt-Mason, overcoming challenges promotes self-confidence and inspires independence. Therefore, conquering fears and challenges is an experience, lesson and feeling she strives to bring to her students.
Kurt-Mason also told The SUN how her family inspired her to make the outdoors a second classroom for her students.
“Watching my two boys grow up and seeing how being a part of outdoor activities contributed to their developing independence was the thing that most informed my wanting to bring outdoor education to my students,” explained Kurt-Mason.
Inspiring independence is a main goal of Kurt-Mason’s. As such, outdoor activities have become an integral part of her teaching. At first, the class started small, walking outside daily, a challenge for many students. In order to integrate classroom lessons and a sense of achievement with these walks, Kurt-Mason created the “Walk Across America” program in which the class tracks miles accumulated during daily walks and applies those miles to figuratively walking from state to state. When the class arrives in a new state, they learn about that state. In addition to this program, Kurt-Mason and her team started out taking students skiing three times a year, a privilege other local school district students enjoy during their school careers.
Since starting small with daily walks, Kurt-Mason has increased the number of days each year her students ski and has incorporated other outdoor activities like horse back riding into her curriculum. After trying different activities, the outdoor focus of the class became water and mountain sports. Now, Kurt-Mason and her team take students day kayaking on local lakes, on overnight kayaking trips to Navajo Lake, on multi-day rafting trips in Utah, and backpacking on the Piedra River trail. Although the buildup to these activities was slow and required both staff and students to solve problems, face fears and conquer challenges, the program is helping students to gain confidence, see and pursue new possibilities.
Although she explained that all trips are life-changing for everyone involved, Kurt-Mason described how the most life-changing trip for students, faculty and parents alike was the first one, an overnight raft trip.
At the outset, the students were terrified and the three accompanying moms were nervous. In fact, Kurt-Mason relayed that one student was so terrified, he refused to get in a raft. Despite fears and uncertainty, the trip was a success. With guidance and encouragement, even the student who was most afraid of getting on the water was jumping into the water on the second day of the trip yelling, “I’m not afraid anymore!”
The following year Kurt-Mason and staff took the students on a trip without any parents.
“That trip is when they really became young men,” explained Kurt-Mason, “they did something special on their own without their parents.”
Kurt-Mason has been teaching for 29 years in Pagosa Springs, and this is her 10th year teaching special education. In light of her receiving the PEOPLE Magazine award, an event will be held Thursday, Oct. 24, at 10:30 a.m. at the high school to recognize the creativity, enthusiasm and heart Kurt-Mason brings to her teaching each day.
Community members can access the article about Kurt-Mason and the six other teacher of the year award winners in PEOPLE Magazine by visiting www.people.com. An additional article about the outdoor program written by Kurt-Mason titled “Paddling to Independence” was published in the February 2013 issue of Sea Kayaker magazine and can be accessed by vising www.seakayakermag.com and looking in the 2013 online article archive.