Members of the ninth class of the Governor Louie B. Nunn Kentucky Teacher Hall of Fame have been selected.
The three chosen by the statewide selection committee are Opal T. Sibert, Ron Skillern and Joe Westerfield. Members of the 2017 Kentucky Teacher Hall of Fame will be inducted during a ceremony scheduled for March 8 in Frankfort.
The Kentucky Teacher Hall of Fame was created in 2000 through a gift by late Gov. Nunn, who hoped to recognize the vital role that primary and secondary teachers in Kentucky play in the education of young people and the positive impact education has on the state’s economy. WKU was selected as the home of the Kentucky Teacher Hall of Fame because of its more than 100-year history in teacher education.
Opal T. Sibert
A native of Manchester, Opal T. Sibert began her life in education as a first grade dropout, but grew to become one of the most dedicated and influential educators in the Laurel County School System.
Sibert began her career in education in 1953 on the Clay County Board of Education, followed by teaching first and second grade students at the Franklin, Ohio, 2nd Street School in 1954-55. Sibert attended Sue Bennett College (1945-47, two-year teaching certificate), Eastern Kentucky State College (now Eastern Kentucky University, 1956-63, four-year teaching certificate), the University of Kentucky (1965-69, Certification, Speech Pathology), and Eastern Kentucky University, 1970-74, Certification, Supervision of Special Education).
In 1956, Sibert began her 30-year career in the Laurel County School System as a substitute teacher. She then became a homebound teacher from 1958-1968. In this role, Sibert changed the lives of many students, such as Sandra Stidham, who was unable to complete her education in the local schools. Stidham, who was born with a rare congenital bone disease, said: “She taught me to read and instilled in me a lifelong passion for books. She poured knowledge into me and encouraged me every step of the way. Most of all, she made me believe in myself.” Stidham was Sibert’s homebound student from first through 11th grades.
From 1969-1970, she taught special needs children in a renovated school room, going on to work as a speech therapist in the Laurel County School System from 1970-1980. Sibert served as a special programs coordinator from 1980-1986. She retired in 1986, but has continued to be involved in her community and in education.
During the course of her teaching career, Sibert was known to be both dedicated and extremely persistent, working for what was right and for the betterment of the lives of Laurel County students and families. “The word in Frankfort was, if I wanted something, they may as well give it to me because I would not hush until I got it,” Sibert said. “That was the way I felt about any programs that would help the children.”
Some of the many initiatives developed by Sibert include a work-study program that prepared students for future careers, a pre-vocational training program for ninth and 10th graders, the securing of grant money through the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) that provided students with special needs opportunities to become successfully employed before leaving high school, and an after-school daycare program, which is still in operation to this day. Sibert also had a hand in starting the Laurel County Chapter of the Council for Exceptional Children, and in 1984 she was named an Outstanding Member of the Kentucky Council for Exceptional Children.
Judy Smith, a colleague of Sibert’s for over 20 years, said: “I found her to never be satisfied with the present education system. She looked beyond the classroom toward providing a means to prepare students for life success.”
Ron Skillern, a native of Bowling Green, has taught in Warren County and Bowling Green Independent schools for over 30 years. Currently a social studies teacher at Bowling Green High School, where he has been since 1996, Skillern has led an interesting and influential career. Skillern attended WKU (B.A., History & Political Science, 1978), Vanderbilt University (M.A. in Education, 1984), and also received his Rank 1 in Education from WKU in 1987.
“I was determined to honor my family’s sacrifice and achieve both a college education and a good career,” said Skillern, who grew up a farmer’s son. “School has always been an ideal place for me, and from the first day I attended first grade, I was hooked.”
His teaching career began in 1985 at Warren Central High School, where he taught 10th-12th grade social studies. Skillern then moved to Greenwood High School, teaching 10th-12th grade social studies. Also during this time, in 1992, Skillern began teaching a three-week intensive course in the summers for students in seventh-10th grades, titled Nazi Germany & the Holocaust, through The Center for Gifted Studies’ VAMPY program (The Summer Program for Verbally and Mathematically Precocious Youth). He has continued to teach this summer course to this day. Skillern began teaching 10th-12th grade social studies at Bowling Green High School in 1996.
Skillern considers his greatest achievements to be building an Advanced Placement program, creating an ACT preparation program, and converting an old room used for a discontinued welding program into a classroom that serves more than 300 students per day.
Skillern has received many awards and recognitions over the years, including the Governors Scholars Program “Outstanding Educator Award” (numerous years), 1988 Teacher of the Year for Warren County Schools, 1997 Teacher of the Year at Bowling Green High School, a Distinguished Alumni Summit Award from WKU and The Center for Gifted Studies in 2015, and was also named 2017 Kentucky Teacher of the Year by Valvoline, Inc. and the Kentucky Department of Education.
Former students of Skillern stated: “Motivation; that is Mr. Skillern’s super power, that is where he works his magic. Quite simply, he is the best motivator I have ever met.”; and, “Mr. Skillern is a U.S. History teacher, but he recognizes that the most important lessons he can teach students are how to learn and how to believe in themselves. He doesn’t see students as who they are; he sees them as who they can be.”
Joe Westerfield, a native of Hartford and a resident of Owensboro, spent 33 years as an educator in Daviess County schools before retiring in 2002. Westerfield has been, and continues to be, extremely active in political forums and activism over the years, serving on various related committees and registering over 5,000 students to vote. Westerfield earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky (1969), his master’s degree from WKU (1971), and his Administration Rank 1 from WKU (1973).
Westerfield began his teaching career in 1969 as a seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher at Daviess County Junior High, where he remained until 1973. From 1973-2002, he taught 11th grade U.S. history and 12th grade American government at Apollo High School, with the exception of 1984-1985, when he served as Director of Instructional Support with the Kentucky Department of Education. At Apollo, Westerfield served as the social studies department chairman, was a member of its site-based council and sponsored many different clubs.
Westerfield immersed himself in social studies to better his teaching by attending numerous state and national social studies conferences and conventions. At Apollo High School, he organized many candidate forums for school assemblies and took students on field trips to Frankfort.
Westerfield also served four years as the Congressional District Contact Team Person for the National Education Association in the 2nd District, and was appointed to serve on the Governor’s Advisory Committee for Federal Funding for Education. Among his many awards and honors, Westerfield was chosen in 2004 as the winner of the Liberty Bell Award, which is given each year by local bar associations in conjunction with Law Day to honor outstanding citizens within the local community. The award recognizes outstanding service performed by a non-lawyer citizen who has given of his or her time and energy to strengthen the effectiveness of the American system of freedom under law, in keeping with the spirit of our Constitution.
Many of his former students and colleagues have wonderful things to say about his influence on them as an educator and an activist. Meg Lawson, a former student who graduated from Duke University majoring in political science, said: “There wasn’t a semester at Duke when I did not use knowledge gained in Mr. Westerfield’s class. Scratch that – there wasn’t a week that I didn’t use what he taught me. His boundless enthusiasm, which caused him at times to accidentally knock over his stool in excitement, are greatly missed.”
Keith Johnson, a counselor at Apollo High School, said: “Although retired from his job in education, Joe was seen supervising student teachers and interns for a regional university for eight years, serving on his local election board, as well as serving on other local and state boards. He is and always will be an advocate for educators.”
Another former student, Leigh Bowen, said: “I looked forward to Government class every day since the very first time I walked in the door. Joe Westerfield was just the kind of teacher that made you want to learn and enjoy government as much as he did. It was his dedication to both the subject and the subjects in his class that made him the best teacher I have ever been fortunate enough to have.”
- For information on the Kentucky Teacher Hall of Fame, contact Tammy Spinks at (270) 745-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact: Kristy Ketterman, (270) 745-4020