Garden City teachers Paul Lappin, Makenzi Johnson and Sarah Wise were named the 2019 Crystal Apple winners Thursday night, taking home the county’s largest honor for local educators.

The three teachers come from different backgrounds — Lappin is the head of Garden City High School’s Life Skills classes, Johnson is an assistant GCHS band director with a knack for composing and Wise is a bubbly Kenneth Henderson Middle School English teacher interested in helping students find their voice.

But all of them, by both their own accounts and that of their principals, highlight one key thing: building relationships with students.

The Crystal Apple awards, dating back to 1995, undergo a long nomination and observation process to name three Finney County teachers as the area’s best that year. This year the top six finalists, all from Garden City, include Lappin, Johnson, Wise, Gertrude Walker Elementary School teachers Dalana Billinger and David Brager and Garden City High School teacher Kelly Butcher.

Lappin, Johnson and Wise were each given a certificate, an engraved crystal apple award, an iPad and $1,000. Remaining finalists Billinger, Brager and Butcher were each given a certificate and $250.

Following dinner, videos took guests into the classrooms of each finalist, seeing energetic fourth graders surround Brager, Billinger pointing out pictures to kindergartners or Butcher speaking animatedly before high schoolers.

In Lappin’s video, the teacher worked with special education and assisting students on various life skills projects, namely the class’s most successful project, the traveling Buffalo Coffee Shop, a series of carts that students take classroom to classroom. The project lets Life Skills students interact with their peers while developing useful skills, and the impact was clear on multiple levels, he said. Some assisting students have shown interest in becoming special education teachers, he said.

In Johnson’s classroom — the band hall — all performance and practice time feels like a group project, she said, and one that she’ll soon be a part of when the band plays one of her compositions in the coming months.

In Wise’s classroom, she works to get students emotionally invested in the texts they read and incorporates a physical type of learning, like songs and hand motions to help students remember certain concepts.

All three students mentioned a deep compassion for their students. Lappin and Johnson both quickly mentioned students when asked what advice they would give to teachers. Lappin urged teachers to build relationships with their kids, to talk to them. Johnson said to love them, on the bad days and the good.

“Sometimes they’re knuckleheads but love them anyway. Treat them like the people they are,” Johnson said.

Wise also mentioned her students, when explaining how she connects to them in her classroom.

“I do different things to let them know that I really am interested in who they are as a whole person and not just as an English student,” Wise said in her video.

During acceptance speeches, Lappin reminded the audience that students with disabilities are just like any other student, struggling with the same fears and desires as those helping them. Wise thanked USD 457 administrators who lift up district teachers. And Johnson, again, turned to her students.

“They mean everything to me,” she said. “Without them, there is no me.”

Contact Amber Friend at