The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the largest professional organization in the world promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning, announced the winners of the 2011 NSTA Teacher Awards Program, which honors K-12 teachers, principals, professors and other science education professionals for their outstanding work and achievement in science education. The awards were presented at a special banquet and ceremony on March 11 at NSTA’s 59th National Conference on Science Education in San Francisco.
Recipient of the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens and National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Environmental Educator of the Year Award was former Mendota resident Paul Ritter, currently a science teacher at Pontiac Township High School in Pontiac. A 1988 graduate of Mendota High School, Ritter is also director of the National Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal Program (P2D2), which he started three years ago, and is president-elect of the Illinois Science Teachers Association.
During the presentation, Ritter was described as a teacher who always puts his students first and for whom “teaching is his life, not just a job. His passion for education and the environment goes well beyond the classroom, touching every aspect of his life, as well as his students.”
Following high school, Ritter earned a B.S. in zoology and later an M.S. in secondary science education from Eastern Illinois University. After undergraduate college, he worked briefly as a wildlife interpreter for the Illinois Department of Conservation. But he felt a strong desire to make a difference in people’s lives and decided to enter the field of education. Eleanor Ritter, Paul’s grandmother, who taught for over 50 years as a regular and a substitute educator, was one of his major sources of inspiration.
With the help of many friends and family, Ritter returned to school to obtain additional course work that would allow him to follow his dream. In the fall of 1994, he was hired as a biology and earth science teacher at East Lake High School in Clearwater, Fla. Although Florida was a wonderful steppingstone for Ritter and his wife, Jodee, they decided to move back to Illinois.
After a long search, he was hired at Effingham High School, however, the move back to Illinois required Ritter to go back to school again to meet the science requirements of the Illinois State Board of Education. After two years at Effingham, the Ritters and their daughters, Baylee and Taylor, moved to Pontiac, where Paul became a valued instructor at Pontiac Township High School.
Ritter has received many awards and honors for his interdisciplinary projects including 11 major awards from three different governors of the State of Illinois. In addition to the P2D2 program (www.p2d2program.org), some of his other noteworthy projects include the Pontiac Township High School Crayon Recycling Program, the PTHS Cell Phone Recycling Program, the Pontiac Billboard Project, the PTHS Ecology Class “Adopt A Highway” Project, and the PTHS Ecology Student Weather Radio Program and the Storm Sewer Stenciling Program, a community project between Pontiac Township High School students and Pontiac Grade School students, and the PTHS Bio-diesel Program.
Some of Ritter’s other honors include 2007-08 Illinois State Board of Education Teacher of the Year - runner-up; 2009–10 NSDAR Illinois Conservation Award – winner; 2009-10 NSDAR
National Conservation Award - runner-up; and the 2009-10 Illinois Conservation Teacher of the Year.
Ritter, who attended the award ceremony in San Francisco with his wife and children, said it was an extraordinary event but he pointed out that the award itself was a reflection of so many people and groups who have helped him with his achievements. “It’s a great honor and I’m humbled,” he said. “I’m so thankful I get to do what I do every day. I love my job.”
Ritter also credited his hometown for much of his success. “It goes back to my roots, where hard work and effort is the norm,” he said. “The lessons I learned growing up in Mendota – none of this would have been possible if not for my upbringing and the community that surrounded me.”
About NSTA The Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), www.nsta.org, is the largest professional organization in the world promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all. NSTA's current membership includes approximately 60,000 science teachers, science supervisors, administrators, scientists, business and industry representatives, and others involved in science education.