When an announcement went out over the loud speaker at Beckman High School on Tuesday that Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares and Tustin Unified district officials were making a campus visit, science teacher Tracy Dawson assumed some sort of school drill was to follow.
But a peek out the window revealed the familiar faces of her siblings, nieces, nephews and parents.
“I was like wait, wait, wait,” she said minutes after being surprised with the news she is one of the county’s six 2023 Teacher of the Year recipients (60 were nominated).
The teachers were surprised Tuesday by a roving prize-patrol-style group of school officials and representatives from SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, which sponsors the annual award.
Classrooms were bombarded across the county to present the recognition and a cache of prizes, including $20,000, a shiny trophy resembling an apple and an invite to an October gala at the Disneyland Hotel. For the past two years, the Teacher of the Year announcement was done over a video call.
The top teachers will also have the chance to compete for California Teacher of the Year. Last year, two Orange County educators were awarded the state title.
Here’s a look at the this year’s top educators in OC:
Plavan Elementary School, Fountain Valley Unified School District
Blue construction paper covers the walls in Summerhays’ classroom, with cut-out underwater critters swimming alongside the preschoolers who step inside each day.
The “Finding Nemo” theme she created helps her students embrace “fun and imaginative play” when they get to school, she said, which is all part of them learning important developmental skills.
For Summerhays, a special education teacher at Plavan Elementary School for 21 years, the career “really found me,” she said.
“It wasn’t like I went seeking for it.”
Instead, she was inspired by a friend from college who began teaching children with special needs and “it just kind of landed in my lap,” she said. “And I’m so grateful.”
With students presenting a wide range of needs, Summerhays said she keeps to “consistent daily routines” in her classroom to help her students thrive, she noted in her Teacher of the Year application. This includes “circle time” — a learning session that may include using instruments, picture books or animating stories — then “learning centers” activities, in which students can practice art, math, sensory activities and more.
A kid-sized pirate ship helps her students explore their imagination through dramatic play. Even snack time and recess offer important communication and social learning opportunities for students, she said.
And throughout the day, as students transition from task to task, she focuses on promoting independence, she said.
Tasks such as putting their backpacks away or taking their snacks out by themselves are small things “that are going to carry them through their lives to feel that they can do things on their own,” she said.
Cerritos Elementary School, Savanna School District
Seeing her first-grade students’ “bright, smiling faces” each morning is Cerritos Elementary School teacher Morgan’s daily motivator.
And she tries her best to keep kids grinning, she said. On any given day in Morgan’s class, you may see the teacher sporting a Cinderella crown (to teach students the “ci” sound) or perhaps a cape emblazoned with the name “Super E” (for when her class studies the long “e” sound), she wrote in her application for the the annual recognition.
She considers first grade a special year for kids academically.
“There’s just this incredible growth that happens,” she said. “They come in barely writing their names, and they leave readers and writers.”
She said her own first-grader teacher is the inspiration behind her career in education. As a struggling reader, the teacher was patient and kind, always focusing on Morgan’s strengths, such as her creativity.
“And so I just wanted to do that same thing,” she said, “both find what’s best about them and help them to foster those skills. We all have our strengths.”
Northwood High School, Irvine Unified School District
As a skipper on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise in college, Case learned the art of flexibility.
While the setting around the skipper remains the same, “you have to adapt your jokes, your spiel, your experience,” to the guests who come aboard, the high school instrumental music teacher said.
“There’s such a crossover between taking those trips out on the boat and teaching a classroom,” he said, “because so much of it is you have to adapt.”
Case said he was tested, however, in March 2020, when after preparing all year for a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, the show was canceled five days before because of the pandemic.
“The sense of loss for all of us was crushing,” he wrote in his Teacher of the Year application. “Yet just like on Jungle, I had to shift my focus — after all, it was about the students and not the music.”
Instead students were encouraged to be creative with a final project of the year replacing the typical concert, he said. “I could not have imagined the level of thought and personal connection that went into those projects.”
Case, who grew up playing piano and saxophone (and recently picked up the bagpipes) said he’s inspired by his students, feeling most rewarded when he recognizes they’ve had an “aha” moment learning a new skill.
“I love being able to see when my kids do things that they didn’t think possible,” he said.
Irvine City College, South Orange County Community College District
In Liu’s classroom, teaching her students English and literature starts with learning how their individual stories make each one unique.
Inspired by professors in college whose instruction on literature helped her connect the stories she was reading to her understanding of the world, Liu said her most rewarding teaching moments are when her class creates “a bridge between each individual student’s background and what it is we’re learning in the classroom, and why that matters to them, given the experience that they’ve had.”
Seeing her students connect with one another and form communities within the classroom remains her favorite part of the job, she said. The community college educator has been teaching at Irvine Valley College for 10 years.
Alana Bliss, 19, who is in her second year at Irvine Valley Community College, said Liu makes it a point to encourage classmates to bond with one another, promoting group work, which has been a relief after taking Zoom classes during the pandemic, she said.
When Bliss was signing up for classes this semester, she said she knew she wanted to take Liu’s course.
But getting a seat was “literally like getting a concert ticket to your favorite artist,” she said. “We were all rushing to get a spot in the class.”
Arnold O. Beckman High School, Tustin Unified School District
Dawson’s classroom packed tighter and tighter on Tuesday with family and district officials and students who popped their heads in to watch the action as Mijares presented to her the Teacher of the Year recognition and dished out prizes.
They joined the dozens of tiny skeletons perched on shelves around the room, each with colorful insides made of clay.
Dawson, who has taught high school science and AVID — a college prep program — at Beckman High School for 11 years, said making school an engaging and safe place to learn is a core tenant of her teaching style.
In her second year as an educator, Dawson started a course at Beckman called Human Body Systems, starting with 17 students, she said.
The “100% hands on” course now regularly sees 130 students signed up each year, Dawson said. She makes her courses rigorous, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun.
“I feel like school should never be a place that is scary or boring,” Dawson said. “Yes, you’re going to be challenged in certain classes, but I think it should be a place where you want to come, and you want to be challenged, but also be protected and feel safe, and want to learn, and also be excited to learn.”
Marco Forster Middle School, Capistrano Unified School District
Chants of “Sanabria! Sanabria!” filled the hallway outside as Mijares and district and school officials met the math teacher at his door to deliver the news of his Teacher of the Year award. His students clapped and cheered during Sanabria’s acceptance of the prized apple trophy and a yard sign proclaiming his title.
When he was awarded the $20,000 check, he declared pizza for the class was on him.
Sanabria, who has been teaching at Marco Foster Middle School in the Capistrano Unified School District for nine years, said he modeled his teaching style after educators from his past, who were gracious with their time and gave him individualized attention when he needed it.
He began his time in the classroom as a substitute, but quickly realized he wanted to go back to school for his teaching credential.
It’s the special care he takes to learn about his students’ lives that he believes is the reason his teaching resonates with so many kids.
“They know that it doesn’t stop here in eighth grade,” Sanabria said. “They come back in high school. They can get free tutoring from me for the rest of their lives.”
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