2002 Teacher of the Year Award: Shirley Ficken

The National Right to Read Foundation is pleased to announce that the 2002 recipient of its Patrick Groff Teacher of the Year Award is Shirley Ficken, classroom teacher at The Phoenix Academy of Learning in Omaha, NE. The Phoenix Academy is a private school for children that have been labeled because they can’t read. The labels range from Learning Disabled and Attention Deficit Disorder to Mentally Retarded. Phoenix Academy takes any and all children and gives them the life long gift of literacy by teaching them to read.

Shirley began her teaching career in 1953, after receiving a teaching certificate from Concordia Teacher’s College in Seward, Nebraska. At the young age of seventeen her professional career started in a two room rural school in Nebraska and continued in other small schools in Nebraska and Colorado. Her teaching career took a hiatus after she was married in 1956 and left the classroom to stay at home to teach her own 4 children.

Her love for teaching children emerged again. As her children started high school and began to follow their own dreams, she knew she wanted to return to her life’s passion of teaching and once again have a classroom of her own. She headed back to the classroom and graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science degree in Early Childhood Education. During the past twenty years she has focused on teaching children to read using Spalding’s multi sensory, explicit, systematic phonics, spelling and reading program which follows the scientifically based principles of reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel as essential to effective reading instruction.

Shirley is a very unique lady. When the children walk into her classroom all labels are removed. Shirley says, “My students have learned one of life’s most valuable lessons: that they are smart, and their ability to learn has no limits. Their importance, significance, and self-worth are reiterated every day that they are in my classroom. I have found that too often our children have been disabled from learning because they have been told they have a learning disability. When children are taught that their “I will” and their “I can” are more important than their I.Q., these students become great scholars and break through barriers that someone wrongfully set in their past”. She has spared the lives of many children from being sentenced to special education because they have not been taught the alphabetic code.

Shirley believed that one of her God-ordained purposes in life was to reach these misdiagnosed children. She stated, ” Not only have I been able to touch their lives, but they have profoundly touched mine. I have been blessed to teach hundreds of children over the past sixty-six years, and they have each made me who I am today… not just a little older, but they have made me profoundly wiser. When I see a former student, I embrace their words of thanks for the short time that our paths have crossed in life, but it is to each one of them that I am eternally grateful.”

Perhaps the best description of Shirley’s teaching comes from some excerpts from an essay written by one of her students, a fifteen year old boy, who describes in his own words just what Shirley’s teaching gave to him.

“I would like to honor Mrs. Shirley Ficken for her influence and efforts that have changed my life. Because of Mrs. Ficken’s talents as a teacher, I am a successful reader. Without her drastic, intensive intervention I would be a non-reader and poor learner.

“I entered school with a huge desire to learn to read. I had always loved my parents reading to me for as long as I can remember. My mother told me when I was a year and a half old I could memorize Dr. Seuss books. I entered kindergarten ready to learn to read. It didn’t happen. By the time I had reached February of my first grade year I could not read. I was pulled from class daily and given supplemental reading classes since October. I was discouraged and thought I would never master the skill of reading. My parents decided to put me in a private school that teaches intensive, explicit phonics. This is where my success began.

“The first day was amazing. I learned to hold my pencil a special way that made my handwriting look beautiful. She then taught me that letters just made sounds and I wrote the sounds I speak on paper. I was so excited I knew I would learn to read now.

“Mrs. Ficken was always cheery and made me believe I could learn. After only three days in her class I was writing my own sentences with proper spelling and I was able to read them in front of my class. Mrs. Ficken gave me the tools to become a life long learner. I will always be grateful for the encouragement and enthusiasm Mrs. Ficken displayed to our class. She truly is a master teacher that I will never forget, she was my guardian angel.”

Congratulations, Shirley. We know that you will touch many more lives by continuing to teach all your students to read well!

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