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posted: 12/22/2013 8:00 AM

N. Aurora teacher wins top award in agriculture

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Cathy Britts-Axen isn't the type to take all of the credit for herself.

So when she recently found out Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom named her its 2014 Teacher of the Year for an agriculture unit she started at Central Middle School in Burlington three years ago, she promptly deflected the glory.

"It's a group effort -- it's really a team effort," the North Aurora resident said. "I think I had the vision, but all the teachers put in their vision and had a big impact on this whole project, so really the award goes to the whole eighth-grade team."

As part of the award, Britts-Axen, a special-education teacher, will receive a plaque as well as a trip to the 2014 National Agriculture Conference in Hershey, Pa. She'll also be the Illinois nominee for the larger National Excellence in Teaching Agriculture Award.

"It's an honor. I highly respect anybody who is a farmer," she said. "There's no higher profession, I feel, than people who serve and feed the nation."

Three years ago, Britts-Axen took an agricultural class for continuing education at the Kane County Farm Bureau and brought those lessons to the eighth-grade teaching team to work them into the curriculum.

They ended up teaching an interdisciplinary unit that focused on how to grow enough food to feed the world. It incorporated gardening, literature, games to simulate world hunger and a discussion about agricultural careers and farming. The program has grown from two days to two weeks.

"Every discipline had an approach to food and hunger issues," said Britts-Axen, who is starting her 10th year in the district.

She also made community service part of the unit. As such, the students organized a Christmas food drive to feed hungry children within the district. This year, the district raised $3,000 toward those efforts and donated more than 3,100 items, enough for the students to assemble 60 food baskets.

"She's an exceptional employee; she's always arranging different ways to help students help families help the community and eventually helped organize our holiday gift basket drive to help our needy families," said Todd Stirn, superintendent of Central Unit District 301.

Britts-Axen, though, wants to share, rather than bask in the glory.

"I thought it was neat, but then a part of me said, 'I wish my whole team could come because it is about everybody doing their part,'" she said. "It's not just me; it's every eighth-grade teacher that we have in this building."

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