ORANGE PARK – Justin Daniels, a veteran educator and cornerstone of the Orange Park High community, recently earned the prestigious 2023 Florida Council for Social Studies Excellence in Teaching …
ORANGE PARK – Justin Daniels, a veteran educator and cornerstone of the Orange Park High community, recently earned the prestigious 2023 Florida Council for Social Studies Excellence in Teaching Award.
Daniels, a longtime Standard and Advanced Placement Social Studies teacher and department chair, has amassed a large trophy case during his educational tenure. But no honor has been bigger than this one.
When asked about his reaction to winning statewide honor, the eight-year employee leads more than 10 teachers in his department, serves as boys’ wrestling and girls’ tennis coach, and expresses pride for earning the recognition.
“If you get a general award, like ‘Teacher of the Year,’ that’s great, but it’s even more amazing to be recognized for working hard in a subject that you’re really passionate about, something that you’ve really dedicated your teaching expertise and poured your life into,” he said.
Daniels’ journey to excellence started in the county. The homegrown teacher graduated from Middleburg High, where his former educators inspired him.
“I had an incredible educational experience (at Middleburg). I had fantastic teachers that (made me realize) that this could be a possible career path for myself,” Daniels said.
The veteran educator credited his unique teaching style for helping him reach the big milestone.
“I approach my class every day with a sense of excitement. I’m transparent with the students. I’m honest with them,” he said.
If they want to hear “stupid stories,” Daniels tells them one. He replays scenes from “Buffalo Rider,” a 1978 movie where half of the plot literally involves the character “Buffalo Jones” riding a buffalo. “I try not to take everything so seriously,” Daniels said.
The jokes and laughter are all part of a hook to keep students engaged from the moment they walk into the classroom.
“When they walk into class, they ask, ‘Are we going to see ‘Guy on a Buffalo’ today?’ While it’s irrelevant, they walked into my classroom and immediately engaged with me, which means they are ready for class. That’s the whole point. I want them to be excited for class because what we’re (learning) contains (immense) value,” he said.
While very important, government and economics can be incredibly boring, which Daniels admits.
“Those are the two most boring classes they will ever receive,” he said.
“By any means necessary” is his only option. He said both subjects will transcend the rest of his students’ lives after leaving the classroom. “They’re building to become active citizens and learn to manage their money. Those are two things that will impact (my students) immediately and the world around them,” Daniels said.
In his classroom, “busy work” carries a negative connotation and is crossed off students’ to-do lists.
“There is a negative connotation with what ‘busy work’ is. I don’t want to fill their life with that. (Instead), it should be work that is engaging,” he said.
Just ask students how they feel in his classroom.
“Yesterday, we played a game, and a (child) said, “Is class over?” And I said it’s (already) been 40 minutes. He said, ‘Man, that was so fast,’ and I said, ‘That’s because we were doing something that is so engaging. It’s not busy, it’s active,” Daniels said.
Building positive relationships that make a positive impact takes center stage.
“I went into administration for a bit, and being away from the classroom (I rediscovered) my purpose. Everything was constantly pulling me back into the classroom. I want to be amongst (the children), building positive relationships and impacting them. Social Sciences is a (subject) that will hold incredible value for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Students, teachers and parents (named and anonymous) have to nominate their teacher of choice for that individual to qualify. Daniels said his students’ decision to put him up for the award reflects they share the value of Social Studies with him.
“It’s nice to see that they see value in this. It’s (validating),” Daniels said.
Winning the Excellence in Teaching Award is not only a personal achievement for Daniels, but also reflects a storied winning tradition in the classroom in the county, he said.
“It’s a testament to the long tradition of Clay County providing students with excellent opportunities, whether through social studies (or other subjects). The county's pathways to success are so immense,” he said.