Mapping success: Mt. Vernon teacher named Indiana Middle School Geography Teacher of the Year

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By Jillian Kurtz

Deb Thomas has a long history with the Mt. Vernon Community School Corp., and she was recently recognized for her commitment as a teacher.

A Mt. Vernon High School graduate and a long-time Mt. Vernon Middle School teacher, Thomas recently was named the Indiana Middle School Geography Teacher of the Year by the Geography Educators’ Network of Indiana, also known as GENI.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Purdue University, Thomas returned to MVCSC to teach. She has taught seventh-grade geography for the majority of her career and has been a teacher for 32 years.

Thomas said she enjoys teaching at the middle school level because of the students’ eagerness to learn.

“There is an excitement for learning that is at the middle school level,” Thomas said. “They are learning to become independent thinkers.”

Thomas is no stranger to being recognized for her work in the classroom. Besides receiving this year’s GENI award, Thomas also was recognized as a Top 10 finalist for the 2020 Indiana Teacher of the Year Award through the Indiana Dept. of Education.

“I think every teacher deserves an award, especially after the almost two years we have all just been through,” Thomas said.

As evidenced by the praise of previous students, Thomas’ impact extends well beyond seventh grade when they move on.

Maitlyn Griner, 18, is a senior at Mt. Vernon High School and was recently awarded the prestigious Lilly Endowment Scholarship, in which she will receive full four-year tuition at an Indiana college or university of her choosing.

“I’ve always remembered Ms. Thomas,” Griner said. “Even as a seventh grader, it was easy for me to pick up on and notice her incredible classroom management. She always carried this kind, wise and calm demeanor.”

Griner recalled Thomas’ extra efforts to make connections with her students and emphasize the importance of learning about different cultures and parts of the world. Griner said Thomas used interactive activities in class, such as songs, to help students remember materials. She also explained complicated topics with simple words and phrases that seventh-graders can comprehend. 

“Many of the students will live and work alongside others who possess diverse customs and beliefs,” Thomas said. “Students must prepare for a world that has become exponentially smaller.”

In 2020, Thomas was recognized by the Indiana Dept. of Education for helping advance Mt. Vernon schools’ mental health initiatives for staff and students. Some of those initiatives include training all Mt. Vernon Community School Corp. teachers on suicide prevention, and each school has a Community Health Network counselor on-site.

“I’m happy to say that our district has really made a commitment to pursuing trust-based relational interventions, and it couldn’t have come at a more critical time,” Thomas said.

Chloe Albright, 15, a Mt. Vernon High School sophomore, credits Thomas for her interest in pursuing a career in the history field. When Albright was a student of Thomas’ three years ago, she said Thomas held her students to high standards.

“We did a lot of really cool hands-on projects in her class,” Albright said. “It was a really good mix of independent work, small-group work and her teaching to the class. She used a lot of different resources, and we were able to learn about and discuss current events as well as historical events.”

Albright credits Thomas instilling in her a strong work-ethic at a relatively young age, which prepared her for tougher classes in high school.

“History, geographic liturgy and cultural awareness are more important now than ever, and that’s why being recognized by the Geography Educators’ Network of Indiana was so important, because they help me and other Indiana educators expand our students’ knowledge and understanding in those areas,” Thomas said. 

Deb Thomas displays a book of indiana maps, which she received after being named the Indiana Middle School Geography Teacher of the Year. (Photo by Rachel Greenberg)

Meet Deb Thomas

City of residence: Indianapolis

Hobbies outside of teaching: “When not teaching, I enjoy reading, traveling, cooking, participating in the Philanthropic Education Organization and spending time with family and friends.

Favorite part of teaching geography: “I’ve always been fascinated with where places are located, so constructing maps is my favorite part of geography. My students enjoy mapping, too. As they begin to connect the locations of places to various people and events, they quickly realize that geography is a driving force behind history and culture.

College: “I received my undergraduate degree from Purdue University in West Lafayette and a graduate degree from Butler University.

Favorite subject when you were in high school: “History and English. So much of what I learned about historical people and events came from reading great works of literature.”

Last book you read: “I am currently reading, ‘What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing,’ co-authored by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. The book really shines a light on how childhood experiences and types of trauma can affect individuals.

Favorite movie or TV show: “I love watching episodes of ‘The Great British Baking Show’ because they always inspire me to get out of my baking rut.”

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