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Cameron Johnson, voted the 2013 Exceptional High School Educator Award by district high school students, says challenging his students “in a new situation every day – with new material and new ideas” is one of his biggest motivations.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

One of the greatest honors a schoolteacher receives is the respect of his or her students.

Last week, Cameron Johnson, a Big Sky High School social studies teacher, was so honored – and then humbled – by an unexpected announcement at a school assembly.

By vote of the Missoula Education Foundation Student Board, Johnson was selected as the 2013 Exceptional High School Educator Award.

“This is a huge honor, especially coming from students,” Johnson said. “But I truly believe that I am just a representative of the incredible teaching staff here.

“There are so many great teachers here, and so many great teachers in the district.”

Johnson’s teaching career began in 2006 after he graduated from the University of Montana.

He helped opened the Bozeman area’s newest high school, Lone Peak High, before taking the teaching job at Big Sky in 2010.

At the heart of his classroom lessons: the development of critical thinking skills, and the notions of citizenship and democracy.

For example, Johnson’s seniors just wrapped up a two-week intensive look at the voting process by dividing the class into a miniature United States Congress, with students representing the House and the Senate.

The students learned how bills are drafted and how they become laws.

Afterwards, Johnson’s students ran an election, having researched political platforms, choosing representatives for the various political parties, running public outreach campaigns, creating 30-second political videos, and debating in front of Johnson’s junior classes.

In the end, the juniors voted and chose a candidate.

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His job, Johnson said, is endlessly rewarding.

“I get to challenge the students in a new situation every day – with new materials, with new ideas,” he explained while leaning into his desk, piled high with a wide sampling of books with titles such as “Warriors Don’t Cry” and “The Americans.”

“To watch kids dig into political philosophy and learn about what is justice and why do we have government, and come to an understanding about definitions of those things and act on it – that’s pretty amazing.”

Keeping students engaged in learning and keeping up with how they learn in the 21st century is one of teaching’s biggest challenges, Johnson said.

“It is interesting to talk with kids who have gone on to college, or who have graduated and to hear about the challenges of their workplace or college,” he said. “Things are moving so quickly and kids are not prepared for what they will find.

“I know when I ask kids to research something, they immediately go to their phones. It’s because of the ease of it, and because it’s what this generation does. The challenge is teaching them focus, filtering, and the ability to process everything they are getting and learn what is valuable information and what is helpful.”

Johnson, who is part of the innovative i3 program Missoula County Public Schools launched last summer, is eager to help the initiative grow.

It’s just one of the many reasons he enjoys working in the district.

Last summer, the program began with 30 students who tackled real-world problems and led their own intellectual discovery using teachers only as a resource for questions and for the facilitation of projects.

This summer, the program will likely included upward of 60 students.

“I think i3 is really exciting because it teaches students communication skills and it lets them loose on making their ideas happen,” Johnson said. “It teaches them project solving and project creation.”

As much as he supports the focus on STEM education locally and nationally – and programs such as i3 – Johnson said he worries that some of the old-fashioned subjects are being ignored.

“With the push for STEM education, civics education has been largely undiscussed,” he said.

Voter apathy, with a turnout of 62 percent in an engaged presidential election and 30 percent in a non-presidential year is “abysmal,” Johnson said. “We have to remember we live in a democracy, and democracy demands education.”

Knowing who to vote for and why, knowing what are the issues, what’s at stake and why the public process matters is the heart and soul of civics education, and a subject that needs to be taught, now more than ever.

“Civics education is what it means to live in a democratic society,” Johnson said, “and how to vote and participate in that in an educated way.

“As a teacher, I love the process that takes place with students, that self-discovery, that awakening of critical thinking skills,” he said. “It’s exciting to educate the next generation of leaders.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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