An impetus behind the Kansas State Department of Education's Horizon Award Program is to recognize teachers who have distinguished themselves as "outstanding" in their first year of service.

On the list of 32 Horizon award honorees, announced this week, was Moundridge Middle/High School ag teacher Ali Torr — who noted just learning of her nomination from MHS principal Hilarie Hecox was particularly meaningful and reassuring of what she is doing in the classroom.

"It was really neat to have her think of me in that way that I would be good enough or that she actually recognizes what I do. It just made me very happy and excited about where I am and what I'm doing," Torr said.

What Torr is doing is not what she initially set out to do while attending Kansas State University. Growing up on a hog farm in Indiana, she began her college career majoring in Animal Science. Her own agricultural roots and a number of friends majoring in education, though, eventually led her down the path to becoming a teacher.

"I knew that I really enjoyed FFA growing up and my ag classes that I was in, and just kind of wanted to pursue that path, so I switched over," Torr said.

Following a stint student teaching in nearby Hillsboro, Torr said she was drawn to the area because of the number of great agricultural education mentors already established in the south central Kansas district. With the facilities available (shop, greenhouse, etc.), Moundridge was an appealing destination and one where Torr was happy to land last school year.

Given her own background in FFA, Torr said she was excited to take the position and get to work encouraging her students to learn more about agriculture.

Taking over the ag curriculum was not a matter of reinventing the wheel for Torr. While she brought her own touches to the classroom, the one major change to the ag program was making animal science (a subject with which she had a very personal investment) a course offered every year. That is now one of six courses offered through the middle/high school ag program, along with other offerings like horticulture, ag mechanics and exploratory classes for middle school students.

One of the nice things about the ag curriculum, Torr noted, is that the classes are electives — meaning students choose to be there. In turn, she is trying to engage her students in a way meaningful to them.

"A lot of kids prefer hands-on activities rather than reading or taking notes, so (I'm) trying to get my class as hands-on as possible to help those kinds of learners do better," Torr said.

Hands-on learning can cover a wide array given Torr's chosen subject matter, but the most rewarding experiences in particular, she said, have come in the ag mechanics class. That is where she can most visibly see the learning "click" with her students. While they may be hesitant to try welding for the first time, they eventually get the hang of it and some, Torr noted, get really excited to keep pushing forward with that skill.

Preparing students to enter the work force is a big part of Torr's role as a leader in the classroom and to be able to motivate them, connecting with them is a big part of the process. That is the case for any teacher — which is why she recommends other new educators take the initiative to become a part of the community (going to sporting events, helping at school dances, etc.), both to illustrate an investment and help build those relationships.

"That's what school's all about, to teach them and help them understand life, and agriculture is all about life — whether it's plants or animals or having a career. I just think it's really important for them to be able to trust you and enjoy coming to the classroom every day," Torr said. "Having the kids come in every day and they're excited about being here just because of the class that we've established and that rapport that I have with them just makes it that much better to try harder for them because they're enjoying it."