Top 25 Teachers of OC

After months of ballots and assessments, Parenting OC proudly presents our leading Top Teachers of OC.

Compiled by Lauren Felechner

2014 Top Teacher: Elizabeth Catron


“I am greatly honored to be chosen for this title. It is such an amazing feeling to be chosen for something that I love to do.”

— Elizabeth Catron

Marjorie Veeh Elementary School | Tustin | 5th Grade
Awards: Good Idea Award from Tustin/Santa Ana Rotary Club and 2012 Veeh Teacher of the Year

“Ms. Catron is passionate about education and ensuring that her students not only learn Math and Language Arts, but also learn to believe in themselves. Since being on the Veeh campus, Ms. Catron has started Student Council, coached girls’ and boys’ volleyball and started a recycling club. There isn’t a day that goes by that Elizabeth doesn’t make a positive impact on the campus,” said Ryan Bollenbach, Veeh Principal. “Ms. Catron has written several grants to benefit the students at Veeh. Last year, she has received a ‘Good Idea’ award from the Tustin/Santa Ana Rotary Club and started an afterschool Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) class for Veeh students. Elizabeth has also received a Tustin Public Schools Foundation (TPSF) grant for recycling and a Donors Choose grant for thesauruses. She is spreading her wealth of knowledge and her enthusiasm for teaching and learning. Last year, her colleagues recognized Ms. Catron as Veeh’s Teacher of the Year.”

Paola Paz Soldan

“This nomination is a rewarding reminder that the extra effort put forth to provide students with meaningful curriculum is appreciated and makes a difference in students’ lives.”

— Paola Paz Soldan

Las Palmas Elementary School (Las Palmas) – 4th and 5th Grade

“With 12 years of experience and originally from Peru, Paola Paz Soldan uses her bilingual skills within a two-way immersion program to make her students — many of whom live below the poverty line and are predominately Spanish speakers — feel inspired and capable of learning. She currently is teaching a STEM (Science-focused) 4/5-grade combination class where students can be found designing greenhouses, making cells from Jell-O and marshmallows, tending to a native Californian garden, making robots and writing stirring reports and papers on what they are learning,” said Karen Nelson, Las Palmas Principal. “She participates in trainings, volunteers for district committees, interacts and shares ideas with her colleagues, and takes an interest in each individual student. Paola is a teacher leading the way into the Common Core Standards and the STEM initiative through her daily, passionate teaching.”

Kiki Banuelos


“My goal is to inspire and motivate kids. It’s an honor to work with [Serra] kids and witness their transformation of believing in themselves and being successful in school.”

— Kiki Banuelos

Junipero Serra High School (San Juan Capistrano) – American Govt./Child Development

“Mrs. Banuelos, a political science graduate from UCLA and mother of two, has been teaching at Serra High School — a WASC-accredited continuation high school in the Capistrano Unified School District — for the past seven years. In order to attend Serra, students must be behind in credits, which can happen for a variety of reasons that are as unique as the student population itself. All Serra students need the love and nurturing of caring and devoted teachers in order to regain their academic footing and graduate from high school. Mrs. Banuelos teaches American Government and Economics at Serra. In addition to that challenge, she runs the Teen Parenting program,” said Joshua Hill, Junipero Serra’s Principal. “She provides these teens with academic support, guides them in their social services applications, and conducts follow-ups with each student to ensure proper care for them and their babies. Her example, patience, understanding, desire and tireless efforts to help these students make decisions that will lead to promising futures make her one of the most important teachers in Orange County.”


John Baker

“Being recognized in this way is humbling. In truth, I am just one of thousands of teaching professionals in OC who wake up every day inspired by the opportunity to empower my students.”

—- John Baker

San Juan Hills High School (San Juan Capistrano) – 12th Grade

“Mr. Baker, a popular teacher among students and peers, teaches English classes, AP Economics, AP Government courses and acts as a County trainer for the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC), which was developed by the CSU and is offered to all seniors in the Capistrano Unified School District. Mr. Baker’s AP test scores regularly rank among the nation’s highest, and he continues to prove he is a credit to the teaching profession,” said Tom Ressler.

Doni Adrian

“It is an honor to even be considered for this recognition. I learn every single day from great teachers, coaches, parents and children.”

— Doni Adrian>/p>

Beswick Elementary School (Tustin) – 5th Grade

“Mr. Adrian recognizes the complex roles teachers take on, and he has redefined what an exemplary teacher truly is in his 14-plus years. Mr. Adrian holds his students to a high standard and fully supports them in their achievements. One visit to his room and you can hear and see evidence of discussions on nutrition, college and responsibility,” said Erick Fineberg, Beswick Principal. “He also tutors students four days a week both before and after school. He works closely with the parents to meet the physical and emotional needs of his students. His commitment and dedication shows up in his students’ results as well. Last year, Mr. Adrian’s students were 91 percent proficient in Math and 83 percent proficient in English Language Arts.”

Tracy Welter


“I really appreciate the support and acknowledgement from my principal. I work with so many amazingly talented colleagues — to be singled out is truly an honor!”

— Tracy Welter

Bernice Ayer Middle School (San Clemente) – 7th Grade

“Tracy Welter teaches 7th grade science, serves as a teaching Assistant Principal as well as the Activities Director in San Clemente. A typical day finds her teaching a lab on chromosomes to her science students, running a limbo contest at lunch, rushing off to organize a dance or fundraiser and then attend a late meeting to help an at-risk student,” said Holly Feldt, Bernice Ayer Principal. “Teaching middle school can be challenging, but Tracy handles kids this age with grace and ease. Mrs. Welter never hesitates to come early for meetings, stay late for parent teacher conferences, work with the PTSA and then perform the duties of an administrator!”

Leslie Lowman


“Love what you do. Teaching is a passion, not a job. Model the character qualities you want to see in your students and colleagues: integrity, dependability, empathy, perseverance and humility.”

— Leslie Lowman

Mesa Verde Education Center/ACCESS/OCDE (Santa Ana/Newport/Mesa) – 6th – 12th Grade

“As a school principal and teacher for the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) in the Alternative Correctional, Community Schools and Services (ACCESS) Program for more than 20 years, Leslie Lowman exhibits pride and enthusiasm toward her job as a teacher and student mentor. Her ability to work successfully with at-risk youth, ages 12 to 18 in English, Math, Social Studies, Health, Science and general education courses is admirable,” said Karen Hudgins, Principal. “Leslie uses ‘hands-on’ activities, real-life experiences and strategies to accelerate student learning. She effectively manages school discipline, teacher support, probation collaboration and numerous other programs. Leslie has participated in district committee meetings and trainings including the Character Based Literacy Program (CBL), Accelerated Math and Reader Presenter, Guided Language Acquisition Development (GLAD), and All ACCESS Math programs.”

Emily Barro


“It’s an honor being recognized for doing something I love: teaching Biology. I strive to inspire students to discover their world and themselves — possibly joining the scientific community and bettering humankind.”

— Emily Barro

Fountain Valley High School (Fountain Valley) – 9th – 12th Grade

“Through Emily Barro’s enthusiasm, excellent lesson structure and terrific rapport, she has taken countless students from not caring about Science to scoring well on AP tests and selecting a career in medicine. Emily has been highly influential in developing an exemplary professional sharing model where she meets with the other Biology teachers at every opportunity, refining lessons, developing new labs and integrating technology,” said Chris Herzfeld, Fountain Valley High Principal. “She has shifted her instruction and labs to include more open-ended lab design, deeper critical thinking, genuine collaboration, real-world application, directed reading, 21st century technology, creativity and development of academic vocabulary. She has over 15 years experience and shows no signs of slowing.”

Kassi Greene

“I am incredibly humbled by this honor. Seeing the joy on a student’s face when they learn something new or overcome a challenge is priceless; teaching is a true privilege!”

— Kassi Greene

Clarence Lobo Elementary School (San Clemente) – 4th Grade

“Mrs. Greene pours her heart and soul into her craft of teaching and is highly sensitive to each student’s needs. Every year, her students make substantial gains on state assessments and her students have some of the highest test scores in the school,” said Cheryl Sampson, Clarence Lobo Principal. “Her students know what is expected of them and are engaged in the lessons at all times. She knows the learning style of each child and accommodates it so that they are successful. She has amazing rapport with the parents by listening to their concerns, and with their partnership, sets up plans to help the students be successful. She welcomes parent volunteers and builds a family atmosphere within the classroom.”

Sharon Coffee

“I am honored by this recognition just as I am honored to be any student’s teacher. I hope to instill a strong work ethic with an appreciation for Literature and Writing in every student that I teach.”

— Sharon Coffee

Liberty Christian High School (Huntington Beach) – Junior High and High School English / College Advisor

“In Mrs. Coffee’s eight years as an English teacher at Liberty, Sharon has developed and implemented programs to improve vocabulary instruction throughout the middle and high school, instruments to assess student writing skills, a peer editing program through the student Writing Center, and an annual poetry writing and performance opportunity,” said Teri Yates, Liberty Christian Principal. “In addition, she has been instrumental in establishing a continuous improvement cycle for the high school honors English program, culminating in her AP English Literature course for seniors. Graduates regularly return to thank Mrs. Coffee for the high standards, which allowed them to make successful transitions to college expectations.”

Amy Hemphill


“Teaching middle school students is the ultimate joy of discovery for me. Through technology and literature, I’m lucky enough to witness the light-bulb moments with my middle-school students.”

— Amy Hemphill

St. John Episcopal School
(Rancho Santa Margarita) – 6th and 8th Grade

“Amy Hemphill is St. John’s Episcopal School’s 6th grade English and Writing teacher, and the 8th grade Road to High School teacher. She is empathetic to her students and goes above and beyond with her time to counsel both students and parents with any questions or concerns. Her English and writing classes are dynamic, as she utilizes a variety of teaching methods including the latest in technology,” said Kellie Pendergest, St. John Episcopal’s Director of Advancement. “Amy has been the teacher advisor for a middle school book club who she meets with during lunch. Amy also created the 8th grade Road to High School class. As the majority of students apply to private secondary schools, Amy saw their needs and created a curriculum that includes visits to her class from secondary admissions directors and high school students. This class has become an enormously helpful tool for students as they journey through the high school selection process.”


Jaya Leslie

“Teaching biology is my passion. My goal is to sustain my students’ sense of wonder while teaching them how to study the world around them. Being recognized for this work is truly an honor.”

— Jaya Leslie

Fairmont Preparatory Academy
(Anaheim) – 11th and 12th Grade

Mrs. Jaya Leslie teaches Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Biology; Honors Human Anatomy and Physiology; Advanced Placement Environmental Science; and Biomedical Ethics, Research Theory & Experimental Design at Fairmont Preparatory Academy. She engages her students by teaching science concepts using hands-on demonstrations and experiments. She provides exposure to real-world science lab work and research that most students would not experience until college,” said Bob Tran, Fairmont’s Marketing Manager. “She can often be found on campus late into the evening holding office hours and impromptu discussions with students about anything from homework to future career goals. A true academic, Mrs. Leslie earned her B.S. at UC Irvine and her M.S. at Stanford University. She started her career in the field working as a Research Scientist. She sees her knowledge as simply something to share in order to inspire the next generation of learners.”

Kevin Bachelder

“I am honored to be nominated. I really appreciate the consideration and feel (as I am sure many of the nominees do,) that teaching is such a reward in and of itself, that any other appreciation is icing on the cake.”

— Kevin Bachelder

Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School (Irvine) – 6th – 12th Grade

“As middle and upper school Music teacher, Mr. Bachelder has nurtured the musical talents of countless TVT students while upping the coolness factor of the TVT music program through popular classes like Garage Band. His charisma is renowned across campus, where he can generally be found encouraging students to explore their passion for music. Today, music is TVT’s most popular elective, with every class enrolled to capacity,” said John Fowler, TVT Principal. “Kevin’s background in composition also gives him the skills to create individual parts for any student on any instrument – at any level. Mr. Bachelder is a recent recipient of a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies from USC and he earned his Bachelor’s degree from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass. Over a 25-year career, Mr. Bachelder has performed for David Bowie and Wayne Shorter as well as recently singing background vocals on a Capitol Records recording session with Steve Miller. He also performs regularly with his original project writing songs that inspire and contain infectious grooves.”

Catherine Sjostedt


“I strive to create a welcoming, informative library that challenges students to connect, value diversity and explore. It’s an honor to be included with a stellar group of Orange County educators.”

— Catherine Sjostedt

St. John Episcopal School (Rancho Santa Margarita) – Librarian

“Catherine Sjostedt, the school’s librarian for the past 10 years, embodies the qualities of a top teacher. Rich, interactive lessons are provided to students that are aligned to grade level curriculum. Besides weekly lessons, Catherine offers Open Library as an alternative to outdoor play. This time allows students to engage in many activities besides reading. Some of these include using the computer, playing interactive games and helping with various duties such as Library Crew,” said Kellie Pendergest, St. John Episcopal’s Director of Advancement. “Mrs. Sjostedt provides a safe harbor for students who may be struggling with difficult social/emotional issues. Not only is she an empathetic listener but a wonderful resource for reading material that may assist students with their particular issues.”

Mary Karaba


“I am blessed with a wonderful supportive team at the Pegasus School who makes it possible to do great things together. I love the opportunity to work with the children who make me laugh and enrich my life every day.”

— Mary Karaba

The Pegasus School
(Huntington Beach) – Pre-K

“At the ripe age of 70, Mrs. Karaba bounds around the campus like woman one-third of her age. Affectionately known as the ‘Piped Piper,’ she can often be seen on campus with her guitar, singing songs with her class. Just recently, she built a tepee in her room to help her students ‘feel’ what it was like as a Native American. During their study of bones, she brought in a full skeleton so the children can picture in their minds what it is like on the inside,” said Tashon McKeithan, Pegasus’ Primary School Director. “She works countless hours thinking about how to best teach her students. Mrs. Karaba has an amazing spirit and is the school’s touchstone. She provides a great foundation for the students and they are lucky to have her!”

Michael Vick


“I thank God for being able to be a teacher in a Lutheran school and share my faith. To be nominated is a humbling and exciting experience.”

— Michael Vick

Abiding Savior Lutheran School (Lake Forest) – 4th Grade / 7th and 8th Grade

“Michael Vick has been teaching middle school at Abiding Savior Lutheran School for 30 years. He brings History alive for the students and develops life-long relationships with them and their families. He incorporates technology into his teaching and has lively discussions surrounding current events. He also coaches and teaches Physical Education classes,” said Donna Lucas, Abiding Savior’s Principal.

Jenny Lindenstein

“I believe teaching is a calling, not a job. Your work is never done, and your students are a reflection of your effort and your passion. It is such an honor to be recognized for something I love to do.”

— Jenny Lindenstein

Heritage Oak Private Education (Yorba Linda) – 6th – 8th Grade

“Middle school Social Studies teacher, Jenny Lindenstein, inspires students and her love of History brings her classroom alive as they delve deep into various time periods. Mrs. Lindenstein encourages each child to think critically as they compare the past to the present, developing a true interest in the subject. As a yearly chaperone on the 8th grade trip to Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York, Mrs. Lindenstein provides valuable insight and expertise so students can truly feel the excitement as they stand where significant historical events occurred,” said Shawna Rhebergen, Heritage Oak’s Admissions Director.

Jeremy Hansuvadha

“I love watching my students get excited solving big, messy problems or doing something mathematically they didn’t think they could do. It feels great that someone appreciates this in my teaching.”

— Jeremy Hansuvadha

Orange County School of the Arts
(Santa Ana) – 7th – 12th Grade

“Mr. Hansuvadha consistently goes above and beyond with his Interactive Math Program students. He uses what he knows about each student’s Math abilities and pursues to challenge him/her at an individual level, allowing each student to grow and learn at their own pace. Jeremy nurtures his students’ current understandings of the concepts so that they see the inherent value for it in life. Moreover, Mr. Hansuvadha teaches his students to value what they have including their families, friends and school,” said Faith Polk.

Kathryn McGillvary

“I am blessed to be surrounded by a community where I am supported, encouraged and given opportunities to grow.”

— Kathryn McGillvary

NOVA Academy Early College High School (Santa Ana) – 9th and 10th Grade

“Mrs. Kathryn McGillvary has transformed from a novice student-teacher into a highly-effective teacher leader at NOVA Academy Early College High School over the past four years. Katy has consistently worked with 9th grade English students to achieve the highest English proficiency rates as compared to all other NOVA Academy Early College High School results. In 2012 to 2013, she spearheaded the 10th grade CAHSEE English and Math programs achieving the highest NOVA 10th grade CAHSEE results with 92 percent pass rates in English and 93 percent pass rates in Math,” said Erin Craig, NOVA Academy’s Principal. “Katy also serves as the beginning teacher support provider. In addition to teaching six classes, she supports and mentors new teachers who are working towards clearing their preliminary credential. Katy is now planning and facilitating regular professional development at NOVA and is working towards her tier one admin credential with a specialization in charter school leadership.”

Rong Zhang


“I enjoy teaching Chinese because I get to speak my native language to my students every day. My classroom feels like a home away from home, and my students are my family!”

— Rong Zhang

Frontiers academy (Anaheim)

“Ms. Zhang makes learning Chinese easy and fun for the kids, enabling her students to have the abilities to speak with flawless accents and fluency. She makes them sing, jump, dance and act out the stories to help them learn,” said Carrie Mizera, Renascence’s Executive Director. “Ms. Zhang believes in teaching them life skills rather than handicapping them by doing things for them. She sees the difficult students as challenges instead of burdens, and the organization and structure of her classrooms helps the students thrive in their education.”

Marie Sykes

“Being recognized is an honor. I feel fortunate that I have had the opportunity to work with incredible mentors, parents and students who inspire me to learn and teach.”

— Marie Sykes

Chaparral Elementary School
(Ladera Ranch) – 2nd Grade

“Marie is an exemplary model of a life-long learner, who consistently seeks creative ways to enhance both her own professional development and that of her colleagues. Her scope of influence reaches well beyond the walls of the school. In the era of standards and accountability — with increased emphasis on the acquisition of math skills — she has worked diligently for the past several years with CUSD Staff Development to offer training to teachers all across the District,” said Joe McGann, Chaparral Principal. “In addition, her classroom is a demonstration site for teachers from all over CUSD and other school districts through her work as a mentor teacher with UCI. Teachers see theory put into practice. They see ‘best practices’ in action when they visit her classroom. Most importantly, Marie is keenly aware of the many unique aspects and demands of teaching. She handles the complexities of working with a variety of students, parents, teachers, staff and members of the community in an understanding, caring and professional manner. Above all, she keeps the best interest of each child at heart.”

Debbie Ashmore


“I am incredibly lucky to be able to do what I love: design lessons and teach kids! This honor is the icing on the cake! I am surprised, delighted and moved beyond words.”

— Debbie Ashmore

Prospect Elementary School (Orange) – Kindergarten – 6th Grade/Resource Specialist

“Each year, Mrs. Ashmore is consistently able to get her learning-disabled students to score proficient or advanced across the board each year. She has organized the curriculum in ways to make the learning relevant and rigorous enough for her students to excel in. This year, she is piloting the use of iPads with her students and has developed units of study that have created an insatiable desire for them to learn,” said Elena Rodriguez, Prospect’s Principal. “When you enter her room it is always buzzing with students engaged in use of technology, whether they are using iPads, SMARTboards or computers. As educators enter the era of implementing Common Core, Mrs. Ashmore is right on the forefront by bringing 21st century skills to her classroom. Students are engrossed daily with collaborating, creating, critical thinking and communicating their learning in a myriad of ways. Mrs. Ashmore is definitely a teacher that deserves recognition for her dedication to special needs children.”

Shelly Coveney

“Year after year, I continue to be proud of my students’ growth academically and personally. I’m honored for the recognition as an educator through my program and students’ success.”

— Shelly Coveney

San Marino Elementary School (Buena Park) – 4th – 6th Grade

“Mrs. Coveney teaches 4th through the 6th grade in special day classes that are comprised of kids from high-functioning autism, Down syndrome, ADD, ADHD or slow reading capabilities. She is consistent with all of the kids and tries to bring out their best! Despite the districts mandatory move of Shelly’s class from Los Coyotes Elementary School, she has managed to continue her curriculum seamlessly. She is selfless, motivational and has gone above and beyond what’s expected from a grade school educator,” said Regena Thyberg.

Michelle Cole

“I am honored to be recognized for doing a job that I love. Teaching is my passion. It is a blessing and privilege to work with students with special needs and their families.”

— Michelle Cole

Esplanade Elementary (Orange) – 4th – 6th Grade

“Mrs. Cole is a special education teacher who teaches 4th, 5th and 6th grade students. In the classroom, Mrs. Cole organizes the day and plans each activity meticulously, engaging each student in his or her learning. Students’ activities focus on specific individualized skills, concepts and areas of growth; yet, the transitions, fluidity and engagements remain consistent. Her knowledge of each student’s academic, personal and emotional needs resembles that of a mother who knows her child,” said Irene Preciado, Esplanade’s Principal. “In her interactions with colleagues and parents, Mrs. Cole listens, provides support and feedback. She demonstrates knowledge of special education laws, state and local regulations, and works collaboratively and professionally with the student’s interests at heart. Her reports — both written and oral — exhibit thoroughness, accuracy and thoughtfulness.”

Dave Willert

“To have real passion for what you do is rare. But that passion, when seen by others, is sure to inspire them. So wake up the world with your passion for living!”

— Dave Willert

Brea Olinda High School (Brea) – 9th – 12th Grade

“Dave Willert has had a long and very distinguished career as a high school vocal music instructor. He has served as the Vocal Music Director at both Brea Olinda High School (BOHS) and Brea Junior High School (BJH) for the past nine years. During this time, he quadrupled the enrollment in vocal music courses at BOHS and created the outstanding program at BJH,” said Jerry Halpin, Brea’s High School Principal. “Brea’s competition Show Choirs are ranked nationally each year and have earned numerous awards. Mr. Willert suffered a stroke in May 2012, but he is a living monument to dedication to his craft and overcoming difficult obstacles. Mr. Willert has been recognized by state and national vocal music organizations and his choirs are regularly requested to perform for large groups, most recently at the Orange County Teacher of the Year Dinner last fall at the Disneyland Hotel.”

Read the full top teacher package:

Top 25 teachers | Fan favorites | OC’s top 5 teachers | School nominees | Parent & student nominees


  1. Tom Fuller says

    Our family was personally pleased and touched by two of these recipients. Mr. Willert’s dedication to choir and music has been nothing short of exemplary. We are thrilled that our two oldest sons are thriving with him as members of the Brea Olinda High School nationally-ranked show choir program. It was also wonderful to see the Top Teacher hailing from Marjorie Veeh Elementary in Tustin, where I grew up near the school and its namesake, my Aunt Marjorie. She encouraged in all of youngsters the value of learning and sharing that knowledge with others. Ms. Catron has obviously followed in those same footsteps. We wish all of these exemplary educators immense continued and contagious success!

  2. Shawn Stuht says

    Mr. Willert is a phenomenal inspiration to students and parents alike! He is a life changing role model to the lives of the students who have the blessing to have him as a teacher!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *