School administrators commend educators who deserve full credit.
We reviewed over 150 beautifully written nomination essays this year from principals and administrators paying tribute to remarkable teachers throughout Orange County. Reading through these nominations and choosing the top 25 was not an easy task, as every submission was truly special and worthy of recognition. From one teacher spending his summer time off to build his school’s STEAM innovation lab, to another teacher creating a Nintendo Switch club for students to learn non-verbal clues and conflict resolution, to one teacher dressing up like a pink dinosaur to interact with her students at a fun level, every one of these educators have shown time and time again that going above and beyond is valuable for our future and very worthy of praise and gratitude.
To see initial reactions and what happened at Parenting OC’s Top Teachers 2018 Awards Reception, click here!
TOP TEACHER OF ORANGE COUNTY 2018
Pre-K, Far Horizons Montessori School, Orange
Donna Dowicki has taught preschool and kindergarten at Far Horizons Montessori School for the past 36 years. She is the epitome of “Mary Poppins” to her students with brightly colored dresses, flowers in her hair, hats laden with flowers and a loving and caring nature for each child. A strong proponent of the STEM programs, she has different hands-on experiments set up in her classroom and even sends home science projects for her parents to do experiments with their children. She initiated the Charity Bazaar at her school in which her students make Christmas decorations for the annual sale, and then buys hundreds of toys with the proceeds for the Spark of Love Children’s program and the Ronald McDonald House. She also has written several children’s stories that teach love, good citizenship and the importance of each individual student.
Says Dowicki: “Being honored as the Top Teacher of Orange County is an affirmation of the significance of my life’s work. It is heartwarming to know that my love of teaching, creative endeavors and years of dedication are recognized and appreciated. How serendipitous to win an award for doing work that you absolutely adore! This award reminds me that I am truly blessed to be a teacher, especially at Far Horizons.”
Creative Teacher of the Year
Acaciawood School, Anaheim
“All the students know Canielle Allison’s energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and the ability to engage every student in her class. She writes music for her class, blogs for the families of her students, and posts Instagram pictures, videos, student interviews and presentations. Aside from teaching, she is the Assistant Athletic Director, faculty advisor for the student government club, and heads up all of the school fundraisers. She also started reading workshops filled with activities, reading strategies, and information on how to engage children as they begin to learn and grow to love reading.
Says Allison: “Through the use of thematic lessons, background music, classroom lighting, over-the-top costumes, and songs I write, I want my students to walk into our classroom and be brought into the world of learning. When our senses and emotions are involved, we are more likely to remember things. My vision as an educator is to gift my students with memorable experiences of content they get to participate in and not soon forget.”
Project-Based Educator of the Year
Edison High School, Huntington Beach
Dave Grace spent hours on weekends, holidays and summer vacation building and maintaining the Edison High School STEAM Innovation Lab. His expertise in construction taught students how to build fish tanks, aquaponic gardens, a green house, and even a coral tank to grow coral in a contained environment. Grace currently teaches three college prep biology classes, leads lab specialist students in maintaining the Innovation lab, and teaches a section of General Science. He was the Science Department Coordinator for many years and has also been the football coach for the past 11 years, coaching Varsity and Freshman football.
“Knowing the impact I can have on my students drives me to be at my best and provide students the best educational experience and opportunities possible. My goal is that every student I teach will get something positive out of the class that will help them grow in their journey towards becoming an empowered adult,” said Grace.
Special Needs Educator of the Year
Palisades Elementary, Dana Point
Jennie Sandvig has been inspiring students for over nine years in the Capistrano School District. She works tirelessly to make sure that each of them are achieving their IEP goals, and uses the visual arts to engage her students and their love of learning. Many of her students have even managed to be recognized with awards for their creativity. Because her students are enrolled in mainstream classes, she openly collaborates with other teachers, paving the way for the students in her Structured Autism Class to succeed.
“Going above and beyond in my classroom is about pushing my students to become actively involved in the school with anything that might peak their interest, such as hip hop class, run club or music. It is about helping them to enter contests and be an active participant in life. One of the focuses in my class is teaching my students how to use simple shapes and colors to create amazing paintings and art projects that they can be proud of. I think that the most important thing that I can teach my students is to participate in life, take control, find their own passion and try,” said Sandvig.
Science Teacher of the Year
Los Alisos Intermediate School, Mission Viejo
It can be difficult to engage middle school students. But with her spiky red hair and her rap skills, Candy Mack can connect with students without talking down to them. Her extensive training in STEM means that she’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to science, but it’s her ingenuity in making the hypothetical physical by doing things like presenting the solar system on the blacktop or launching rockets made out of soda bottles to demonstrate forces and motion.
“Every person, whether young or old, needs to feel successful at something. Many of my students have few areas, if any, that school offers them that ‘success’ story. I work very hard to be creative in my approach to teaching, lessons, and activities so that my students can have that feeling of success. I teach them very early on that ‘fail’ stands for First Attempt In Learning,” said Mack.
English Teacher of the Year
Pegasus School, Huntington Beach
In Nancy Wilder’s “Den of Learning”, students don’t just read novels, but dive deeper into their meaning. This teacher does not just summarize Scout’s actions in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, but challenges students to understand what happens in the story in the context of the events of today. She is a tireless advocate of language, and has used her grammatical skills to help edit her school’s 152 page accreditation report. Students at the Pegasus School constantly score near the top of their English classes and exceed the national averages on standardized tests.
“My students’ hopes and dreams inspire me to do my best each day. Frequently, I tell my scholars to use their gifts to bless others. I try to do the same. Because so many teachers and mentors have invested in my life, I want to use my gifts to help others make a positive impact in their corners of the world,” said Wilder, “A student last year asked me, ‘How do you manage to make each day seem like a special occasion?’ In my mind, each day is a special occasion, an opportunity to pay attention to the people around us and to the tasks at hand.”
Inspiring Educator of the Year
Heritage Oak School, Yorba Linda
Annie Shaw’s open-door policy ensures that every student feels welcome to come in and talk, laugh, joke and sometimes even cry. She’s committed to modeling traits that she expects her students to demonstrate, which they gladly do because of the overwhelming respect they have for her. Even when she was out for an extended period of time due to a breast cancer diagnosis, her students felt her encouraging presence and support.
“Teaching to me is a ministry; a calling to touch lives and make them better… I need to present them with opportunities to explore, investigate and learn. I am their mentor, friend, mom, teacher, counselor, and cheerleader,” said Shaw, “I want my life to reflect what I preach — a good work ethic, hard work, tolerance, a love for each other and never settling for mediocrity. I believe children will emulate the traits of someone they admire and I want my life to be a testimonial to these traits.”
Global Teacher of the Year
Sunburst Youth Academy, Los Alamitos
Allen Witten realizes that in order for students to become better people, they need to realize the larger world around them. He established connections throughout the globe to allow his students to help other students develop feelings of empathy. He regularly travels around the world to meet with other like-minded individuals to discuss global education strategies, and takes alternative education students to Washington D.C. to participate in youth leadership activities. In the words of his principal, he not only teaches social science, but teaches students to ‘be aware, involved, and care.’”
“My colleagues serving in the California National Guard demand excellence from our students and each other. Their dedication, commitment, and sacrifice inspire me daily,” said Witten.
Educator with Dedication Award
El Modena High School, Orange
Mathematics can be a daunting and imposing field of study. But Rich Simons not only makes it relatable to students outside of the classroom walls, but fosters a genuine sense of problem solving in students that they didn’t even know they had. That would be enough for most teachers, but Simons goes above and beyond, making sure that all students feel like they belong. He created a Nintendo Switch club to reach out to more marginalized students, and also coaches the varsity swim team that focuses on individual improvement and team commitment.
“I want all students to have the opportunity to not only learn, but to be social, and to have the chance to be a part of a high school athletic program. My other motivating factor is my family. Whether I am teaching a math class, running a school club, or coaching swimmers, I want to treat every student the same way I would want someone to treat my own kids. I want to work hard and show empathy for others so my kids will learn those values,” said Simons.
Educator with Heart
Venado Middle School, Irvine
Janet Dicker has been teaching in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program for more than two decades. Reading and English are difficult subjects for those with normal auditory skills, and can be even more daunting for those who are hard of hearing. But this educator is uncompromising in her desire to make sure that students leave her classroom ready to function at the high school level. She works tirelessly with general education teachers to help mainstream her students, and dreams for a day that the words “I can’t” are eliminated from a student’s vocabulary.
“For no fault of their own, due to very limited or no access to language at home, my students’ language is often very delayed compared to that of their hearing peers. My students often entered preschool and/or kindergarten already way behind. By the time I get them in middle school, their gaps can seem like chasms. I am driven to make the most of every minute with them; to give them access to language, learning, and life so they have the skills to pursue their dreams,” said Dicker.
Kindergarten Teacher of the Year
Oakridge Private School, Orange
Laura Hines is a President’s list and ACSI certified teacher, who has developed Christian-based Bible curriculums, technology programs for STEM development in her classroom, and has even taught Physical Education in a K-8th grade setting. Beyond her academic and professional performance, she dedicated herself to caring for children in the foster care system through Royal Family Kids Camp. She also travels to Guatemala to care for children in orphanages over her summer breaks. Most of her time is spent at The Hope for Life, in Guatemala, serving in the baby hospital, working with special needs, and providing love to those children in the foster system.
“What drives me to go above and beyond as an educator is the children in my class. It’s a blessing to experience the excitement they have when they read for the first time or learn how to solve a problem on their own. I find it an absolute privilege to be a part of many of the ‘firsts’ they experience at the beginning of their education,” said Hines.
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, Anaheim
Having been raised in an immigrant family of 12 and learning English as a second language, Socorro Ament has understood the struggles of many Anaheim families learning a new language and culture. Because of her personal history, she has strived to establish partnerships within the community and her students to support their personal, family and educational needs. Most recently, she has found herself seeking ways to infuse and integrate technology into her daily teaching. . Because of her efforts in establishing various community partnerships, she has been able to provide her students with relevant field trips, community service opportunities, and other community based activities; all at no cost.
“As an educator, I provide students with a rigorous education, high expectations and access to the curriculum in a variety of learning styles. My goal is to develop lifelong learners, encourage responsible citizens and goal setting individuals who care about their home, school and community.”
Rancho Santa Margarita Intermediate
Mark Bantle is a strong advocate for the Rancho Santa Margarita Intermediate STEM programs, even co-creating a project with a fellow district school to design a very resourceful hovercraft powered by a blown up balloon and connected to a CD. He has worked hard to fundraise the STEM efforts to keep the program strong and creates partnerships with businesses and higher education to assist students.
“My class is fun to teach. I get to show students how to use tools and technology to solve problems. From laser cutters and 3D printers, to CAD systems and electronic circuits, to saws and drills, I get to play with the best toys all day long and share them with students,” said Bantle, “Students are usually curious about how things work, and they aren’t afraid of trying new technology and equipment. I have the privilege of introducing students to some of the industry tools and technology that will impact their lives.”
Huntington Seacliff Elementary School, Huntington Beach
Michelle Brady has already been recognized by the Orange County Department of Education as a semi-finalist for the 2016 Teacher of the Year. She is currently a Cognitively Guided Instruction Coach and Technology Leader at the district and site level and has been instrumental in implementing Huntington Seacliff Elementary School’s 1:1 iPad program. She is involved with district committees working on ELA/ELD and Math standards sequence schedules, science, and articulated writing. Michelle is also a BTSA support provider and has led many training sessions for new and experienced in technology such as her popular “Appy Hour,” which reviews excellent educational apps.
Pacific Drive Elementary School, Fullerton
Lois Chow embodies her school’s vision of making computer science accessible to all students by implementing research-based teaching strategies and project-based learning, challenging her students to investigate complex questions, and problems. She infuses her lessons and activities with digital learning experiences that utilize a variety of technology such as Scratch Coding and Story Maker Animation Studio. As the site ELD and Gate coordinator, she ensures that the school is using a comprehensive multi-method identification process, which is consistent with best practice.
“In order for students to be prepared for this exciting future, education can no longer stick with only the basics but must help them become competent with technology and science while being knowledgeable about world social challenges,” said Chow, “Yet, many students come to school without the foundational tools we take for granted such as adequate food and family support systems. It is a challenge for teachers to address all these basic and complex needs but I put my best into this work because I see that the lives of my students are at stake and that’s what motivates me.”
VanDamme Academy, Aliso Viejo
Jeremiah Cobra was described by his principal as a “grammar-teaching, novel-writing, Japanese-speaking, semi-professional-basketball playing, fancy-tie-knot-tying, music-loving Jedi of a teacher.” Born in Connecticut, he lived for 9 years in Japan, where he taught ESL while himself becoming fluent in Japanese. He teaches writing and grammar, developing his own method of introducing the rudiments of diagramming, something he called the Grammar Train, which shows the students visually and helps them grasp conceptually the role of different parts of speech.
“As someone who grew up in a fairly impoverished neighborhood, I am aware of the role that school, from elementary school to graduate school, has played in my ability to raise myself from unfortunate circumstances and ultimately pursue the best life of which I am capable,” said Cobra, “On an individual level, I value the notion that I am equipping my students with the knowledge, thinking skills, and reverence for life necessary to pursue their ideals and ambitions. On a broader level, I am also aware that many such students grow to be adults capable of the highest pursuit of human flourishing.”
San Juan Hills High School, San Juan Capistrano
Alexandra Easton has gone above and beyond to bring wildlife into her classroom and the science department by installing wildlife cameras in some of the ravines and trails surrounding the school. In doing so, she has been able to capture the local wildlife to help support students in their learning of the food chain, biological impacts on animal life, and animal patterns and behaviors. This year, there are plans for Marine Ecology and AP Environmental Science classes to incorporate use of the footage, as well as possible plans to use them in some capacity in the art classes.
“As an AP Biology teacher I strive to create real-world hands-on experiences that my students will learn from and remember long after they have left my class. I was inspired by my science teachers through the use of hands-on activities and chose my life’s work to bring similar experiences to students. My passion remains unchanged, and the most rewarding moments for me as a teacher are seeing my students get equally excited about the content,” said Easton.
International School of Los Angeles in Orange
Violaine El-Basri teaches a full range of classes including: Critical Thinking, French, Visual Art, Music, PE, and World Discovery in a French immersion setting. Early in the school year Madame El-Basri takes her class to the LACMA, in order to inspire her 20 young minds. All activities prepared by her are project-based and combine collaboration, curiosity and problem solving.
“Since my first year of teaching, my passion has been to nurture young minds and foster an eagerness for learning through a stimulating, fun, and creative environment using new technologies and art. I usually use projects or games to teach French, Math, and Science. The children are involved and become active learners,” said El-Basri.
Santa Margarita Catholic High School
As a science teacher, Jason Lawrence volunteered to be the founder of his school’s FIRST robotics team, SMblyRequired. Founded in 2014, the team provides students with the experience of working on an engineering team, building robots and competing internationally. Through his leadership, the team earned a trip to the 2016 FIRST Robotics Competition World Championship where they finished as the second ranked rookie team in their division. In just two years the team has won awards at nearly every competition including multiple judge’s awards, design awards, the 2015 FRC Rookie All-Star Award, and the Matt Grob Innovation Award ($10,000 scholarship) sponsored by Qualcomm. In addition, Lawrence has been successful in seeking outside funding for the program, resulting in $30,000 annually.
St. Angela Merici Parish School, Brea
Roy Loporto helped transform 35 bulky desktop computers into a new Mac lab for the school, implementing classrooms with teacher iMacs, student computers, Apple TVs, projectors, iPads, ProWise boards and Chromebooks. He also has initiated a live student-led broadcast and studio that functions much like a news television studio, complete with a soundboard, camera, teleprompter, green screen and monitors.
“Passion for what I do drives me to go above and beyond as a teacher. I love technology, and I love teaching and working with young minds. I enjoy giving my students experiences that allow them to access all that technology can offer them,” said Loporto.
Fairmont Private School, Anaheim
Vanessa Patterson goes above and beyond for her students and her fellow faculty, running the Sunshine Club in which she spreads sunshine for her campus through cards, notes, baby showers, going away parties, bridal showers and more. As a member of her school’s Tech Team, she has also helped with various learning platforms and data management systems.
“What drives me are the students. Every year each class is unique and brings new opportunities, adventures, and challenges. I feel very blessed to be in a career where I can help young people not only develop their academic minds, but shape their characters as they grow into their next phase of life,” said Patterson.
St. John’s Episcopal School, Rancho Santa Margarita
As a math teacher and former registered nurse, Ann Petersen added an enrichment class named Medical Detectives in which she combines her two professions to benefit her eighth graders in the areas of pathology, viruses, epidemiology, and crime scene investigation. Not only does she sponsor the Student Council, but also in her newly expanded role as Student Life Coordinator, she has taken the lead in organizing the weekly Cardinal Community Time assemblies and pep rallies each trimester.
Red Hill Lutheran School, Tustin
Matthew Smith initiated a big buddy program, partnering new students with buddies, so that they can feel welcome at school. This year, he started a Robotics class on campus to further the STEAM program, spending a full week in the summer on his own time at Cal Poly Pomona, training on the new program; part of the Project Lead the Way curriculum. He has done Project-Based Learning assignments, including his famous Barbie Bungee Jump, a math lesson in algebra. He has truly turned his classroom into a giant game board.
“One of my favorite scripture verses comes from Luke 12:48, ‘And from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be expected.’ I’ve been extremely blessed in my life, and every day I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with amazing students who regularly go above and beyond in pursuit of academic and spiritual growth. They inspire and drive me to be a better person and teacher,” said Smith.
Red Hill Lutheran School, Tustin
As a middle school language arts teacher, Lisa Tarkoff expects her students to write arguments based on strong evidence and logical reasoning, addressing alternate points of view and presenting the facts clearly. After reading Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, her eighth graders held a Mock Trial to use all of the skills they learned in studying argumentation, crafting their cases and presenting the trial to a jury of fifth grade students. Through these lessons, students have designed and presented science lab remodel proposals, raised funds for an Automatic External Defibrillators, and created Public Service Announcements that raised over $3000 for the Orange County Rescue Mission.
“One of the primary ways that I continue to develop myself as an educator is through my fellowship with the UCI Writing Project. Through this, I am able to continually study research-based teaching methodology and apply my knowledge to the classroom,” said Tarkoff, “Additionally, I am able to bring my knowledge to other teachers at my school so that they can apply proven methods to their classrooms. At the root of this is my desire to provide my students with the best, most engaging classroom environment possible, nurturing the same growth mindset in them that I strive to foster in myself.”
John David Williams
Brea Junior High School
English teacher John David Williams is committed to empowering students to give back to their community as well as teaching them the skills and joys of English. He organized a letter writing campaign and a Silent Auction fundraiser with all proceeds going towards HomeAid Orange County. Last year, Brea Junior High donated over $4,500 to HomeAid OC and has donated approximately $75,000 over the past 19 years. Last year, he and the entire 8th Grade English Department was awarded the 2017 HomE Award for their outstanding contribution to ending homelessness for families and individuals in Orange County by going above and beyond to support HomeAid’s mission from the HomeAid Board of Directors.
“Every day when I walk into my classroom, I realize what an honor it is to affect the lives, even in a small way, of my students. I want my students to have the same epiphany that I had: they can make a difference in the world, no matter what age or social position. I enjoy doing the little things that might not get noticed, but make a difference in the lives of my students,” said Williams.