Top Teacher of Orange County 2021
Beckman High School in Irvine
At the beginning of the year, during Phillip Chow’s five-minute meeting with each student, he lets them ask him three questions of their choice. The top question is usually: “Why are you so happy?”
“My answer is simple,” said Chow, AP biology teacher at Beckman High School in the Tustin Unified School District. “When I look at what I do have now in life — a loving wife, my faith, food, shelter, technology, clothes, safety, etc., I am filled with gratitude.”
It wasn’t always this way for Chow, who attended Beckman High School as a student himself.
“My family and I were faced with financial difficulties during my senior year when the 2008 housing recession happened,” he said. “At the age of 18, I was on my own and had an unstable living situation over the next three years of college. I slept in my car for four months straight, lived in a friend’s living room for the next two years, and ended up receiving food/aid/counseling from two homeless shelters. I was living paycheck to paycheck and low on hope.”
But things did turn around, and it’s this hope and optimism he continues sharing with his students year after year — especially this past one. For this and many other examples of Chow’s educational excellence, he has been named Parenting OC’s Top Teacher in the magazine’s annual School Heroes Awards.
“There have been some very difficult moments this year in my life and several of my students’ lives, but I always bring it back to gratitude for what we have,” said Chow. “Though life is drastically different than what we are used to and several things have been taken away from us, I always remind my students that we still have every reason to be grateful.”
Chow has many stories to share about his time at Beckman High (in fact, he even started dating his wife when they were in high school there), but he will never forget one ninth-grade student from his first year of teaching that was particularly difficult in the classroom.
“He would get into fights, smoke his e-cigarette in class, be verbally condescending to everyone and have verbal outbursts daily. At first, I jumped to conclusions and didn’t understand why he chose to act the way that he did,” Chow recalled. “But I was reminded of the quote, “A student doesn’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
So after one particularly dramatic outburst in class, Chow quietly followed the student out of the class to the lunch tables. He sat down calmly and quietly next to him.
“After waiting a minute, I remember saying to him, ‘Hey … do you know that I really care about you?’ He didn’t respond. I continued by saying, ‘Honestly, you’re one of the most talented students I’ve ever taught and I really believe that if you grow in the right direction, you will be one of the greatest success stories of my life.’ He still didn’t say anything. I continued with an apology. I remember saying, ‘Hey, can I say I’m sorry to you? I’m sorry for all the times I judged you without trying to get to know you and I’m sorry for not talking to you more.’ He began to cry.”
The student started sharing about his separated parents, his obligation to take care of his younger siblings and the need to work to earn money for his family at a young age.
“This was truly an eye-opening moment for me because I truly realized my first year that as teachers, when we invest our time in getting to know students, not only will it positively change their lives, but it will begin to positively change ours,” Chow said.
Connecting with his students is something that has continued in various forms for Chow throughout his career.
“Each year, I work hard to create a family atmosphere in each of my five classes,” he said. “We know each other, we trust each other and we are thankful for each other.”
Character-building is an important part of his lessons. And he teaches by practice. For instance, when teaching about gratitude, he creates events where students can plan surprise celebrations to thank people — such as cafeteria workers and night custodians.
He’s adapted his lessons to the pandemic, too. The MrChowPodcast on YouTube is just one example.
“Over winter break, I also created a free Winter Break Consumer Finance Course in which over 800 students tuned in from all over Orange County,” he said. “I awarded over 200 certificates for students who completed the notetaker and watched all 10 videos ranging from investing, student loans, how to buy a car, how to buy a house, how to be generous, financial decision-making, etc.”
Community outreach is a big part of what he does. Among events like a Car Education Day and YouTube COVID Chats involving members of the community like car technicians and medical professionals, he started a three-year, extracurricular Medical Certificate Program to give students interested in working in the medical field a chance to learn from medical experts.
“Each year he puts the entire program together and recruits parents from various job sectors within the medical field,” said Donnie Rafter, Beckman High School
principal. “He also hosts the meetings and facilitates the presentations.”
Rafter said Chow has been referred to as the Energizer Bunny.
“But I’m not sure that does him justice because I think he would outlast the bunny,” said Rafter. “His high levels of enthusiasm and constant positive energy cause kids to flock to him. He loves them and they, in turn, love him back.”
Fellow teacher and wife Lillian Tran said she nominated Chow because he is very deserving of this recognition.
“I’m honestly not just saying this because I’m his wife,” she said. “You could ask any of his students, parents or colleagues, and they would say the same about him. I wanted to write his nomination as a surprise to him, because I’ve seen all of his dedication and hard work behind the scenes for the past eight years and saw this award as an opportunity to share Phillip and his amazing work with others. As a fellow teacher, I also see Phillip’s teaching philosophy and style as truly groundbreaking and something that can inspire and be emulated by other educators.”
— Jessica Peralta
Top 10 Teachers of Orange County 2021
“In a year when students and teachers have been through a great deal, this nomination and its accompanying message from the administration, teaching staff and students at my school has acted as a massive boost in my morale and belief in myself as a teacher. So often one trusts their own passion and philosophy, but wonders to what extent it’s resonating with their students. This nomination is confirmation that hard work and creativity do not go unnoticed, and I’m very grateful for this recognition.”
Not every teacher has an alter ego with a Western drawl as she teaches California history — but Heritage Oak third-grade instructor Miriam Bernard does. Mrs. Burrrrnard arrived one day with a straw cowboy hat, which almost magically turned the Westward Expansion unit into an unforgettable experience for students. Zany accents, goofy antics and over-the-top Halloween costumes including Mr. Rogers, Miss Frizzle and Frida Kahlo all contribute to the originality and energy of her classroom and summer camps. Her long-running cooking camp, Top Chef Jr., concludes with 30 young chefs in chef hats and aprons, serving their families the feast they learned to prepare. This is the out-of-the-box enthusiasm Bernard brings to each of the 40-plus camps she has developed as well as to her classroom. When COVID-19 closures hit, she took the opportunity to completely rework how to engage students virtually. This transition happened so successfully that 60 percent of her 2019-20 students chose to continue school online in 2020-21 (the school average is 33 percent). Bernard is now the third-grade teacher for the inaugural year of the school’s Online Academy. Lunch Zoom hangouts and silly rewards — like choosing Mrs. Bernard’s hairstyle — keep student morale high.
Red Hill Lutheran School
“I have felt very supported by the wonderful families and staff at RHLS. This nomination reminds me that success and achievement are grounded in the people that spur you on. I hope this honor influences my students to continue to dream, know they are influencers, and keep their faith.”
How many students can say they have spoken with an astronaut who was flying 250 miles overhead on the International Space Station? RHLS students can, due to the innovation, resourcefulness and passion of STEM teacher Sara Bridgman. She is the catalyst and school leader of a year-long exploration of space. Through her community connections with Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS), students experience lessons in preparation for communication with ISS astronauts. The NASA National Space Challenge participation received numerous awards and recognition. The Tomatosphere experiment involving space seeds was another experience that engaged the whole school in critical thinking. Bridgman single-handedly developed the middle school STEM program, collaborating with content teachers to enrich academic standards. She is a role model as a female STEM teacher, actively promoting Girls for STEM, recognizing women in these fields, and leading students in Women’s History Month activities. Bridgman’s Digital Citizenship program teaches important skills that students then teach to younger students. As student body advisor, she launched an award-winning anti-bullying campaign and supported numerous philanthropic causes. To support biomedical engineering, students created prosthetic hands sent internationally to kids in need.
“Teaching science during the pandemic and helping my students access the best scientific evidence to transform their uncertainty into understanding has been the greatest challenge and opportunity of my career. I feel honored and humbled to have my instruction recognized for its positive impact on my students and community.”
Kenton Buck has helped reinvent middle school science through his unique approach to instruction, always finding new ways for his students to become “citizen scientists.” He’s instilled in his students an appreciation for the environment by establishing both the middle school’s community garden and the Environmental and Sustainable Gardening Club. Middle school students researched, constructed and now operate the community garden and its thermal compost, producing carrots, lettuce and Brussels sprouts, which are then donated to local food banks. He is also known as the “bird whisperer” after introducing the field of ornithology to his students. He has on multiple occasions taught students how to correctly help an injured bird and how to develop bird-friendly environments. In an effort to have students understand the temperature scales from the book “The Martian” that the class was reading, Buck had students construct heat shields and then set them ablaze to see if their engineering designs would meet temperature requirements to survive entry into the Martian atmosphere. When the academic year began, Buck volunteered to develop protocols to ensure student safety and joined the school’s COVID advisory committee, becoming a liaison between health professionals and the faculty.
Orchard Hills School
“Teachers are heroes, and teachers during the pandemic are superheroes! It is the greatest honor to be nominated for the Top Teachers of OC award, as I hope to use this platform to: 1) Share best practices and innovative teaching tools for engaging lessons during virtual learning that will meet the social-emotional needs of students as well as academic needs. 2) Create a sense of community among teachers and establish support for one another and lift each other up.”
Nancy Chung’s originality, humor and exuberant teaching style have made her a wildly popular student favorite throughout her 24 years of teaching. In her classroom, she creates a playful atmosphere that encourages students to take academic risks and exhibit a growth mindset in everything they do. In addition to co-leading the elementary robotics program and taking her team to the World Championships in Robotics in Kentucky multiple times, Chung has become a famous face of education online — with over 62,000 teachers following her on Instagram to marvel at her novel lessons and savvy teaching tips. She is an “influencer” in the best possible use of the word, hosting teacher meetups for local teachers to build networks and support groups. She’s also a district trainer for virtual learning and has been featured on many vlogs and podcasts, including “Dealing with Racism from an Asian Perspective” and “Creating a Home-Like Learning Environment.” As the pandemic has challenged all teachers to rapidly become experts at distance learning, Chung has used her many tech platforms to inspire colleagues across the nation to believe in themselves and rise to these new challenges.
La Habra High School
“It’s truly pleasing to have a career that you invest in and are passionate about to be recognized. It validates the unique nature of influencing students for their future success.”
In 1998, the small, close-knit community was wracked by the news of a grisly murder of a local middle school student. As details continued to emerge, Chuck Fanning noticed his students’ concern and curiosity about the investigative and judicial process following a crime. From this student-driven interest, Fanning began a forensics class designed to support his students as they tried to make sense of the suddenly sinister world around them. Twenty-two years later, Fanning is the program advisor for the La Habra High School Forensics, Police and Fire Academy, a program that enrolls almost 25 percent of the school population and prepares students for post-secondary careers within these fields. With a fully developed, four-year progression of cohorted classes and industry-specific courses — for example, EMR, fire tech and EMT — Fanning has created a safe space for students to explore their interests and gain valuable skills. He organizes field trips to learn about things like an actual autopsy, brings in guest speakers to talk about careers within the various fields of forensics, police and fire, and turns the campus into a giant crime scene to analyze fingerprints and other forms of crime scene investigation. In order to ensure subject-matter competency and rigor, he works with the FPFA teachers in English, social science and science classes to develop FPFA-focused cross-curricular projects and learning activities.
Aliso Viejo Middle School
“This nomination is a reminder that we are all capable of inspiring and changing the lives of the students we meet each and every day. It is our responsibility as educators to be positive role models, not just in theory but in practice as well. This nomination is incredibly special, because it shows others that when you do good, and you work hard, good things come your way.”
In 2017, Evis Miloti’s daughter, Klea, began sixth grade. Eventually Miloti started hearing about “Ms. Hosseini,” who wasn’t even her daughter’s teacher yet. Why was Klea mentioning her so often, Miloti wondered. Next year, on registration day, when Klea got her schedule, her eyes lit up and her whole face exploded with joy, recalls Miloti, because Ms. Hosseini was now her social sciences teacher. Hosseini has become a teacher students seek out when they need help or need someone to talk to. Her classroom is a sanctuary where kids feel they can be themselves. When Klea finished seventh grade, Miloti says she received a two-page personalized letter in the mail from Hosseini, which Klea keeps safe in a special box. Later, Miloti learned that Hosseini wrote personalized letters to every one of her students — about 170 kids. Outside of school, Hosseini is the co-founder of a non-profit organization Your Story Matters, focused on raising awareness and offering education on suicide prevention, anti-bullying, mental health and LGBTQ+ issues for teens. Her entire classroom and teaching philosophy is based on mental health and a positive mindset. Not only does she care about her own students, but she is very active on campus and throughout the district.
Fairmont Schools, Historic Anaheim Campus
“This nomination is an incredible honor. I am so fortunate to be part of the amazing Fairmont community that is committed to inspiring our students to discover their passions and true potential.”
Karen O’Hanlon is a beloved and invaluable member of Fairmont Historic Anaheim Campus’ (HAC) learning community. O’Hanlon displays unwavering commitment to her students and their families and takes great pride in helping each student achieve their individual goals. O’Hanlon serves as the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IB MYP) coordinator, is a beloved middle school teacher of theater and performing arts, leads the IB MYP Design student advisory course, and is a co-leader of the Junior High Debate Team. O’Hanlon actively supports and engages with the broader community as she leads regular support sessions for war veterans. O’Hanlon’s approach and demeanor with students is dynamic and individualized and her lessons are a model of creativity, thoughtfulness and effectiveness. She regularly engages in reflection on how her teaching impacts student learning and continually strives to refine her planning and delivery. As a teacher mentor and MYP coordinator, O’Hanlon supports newly qualified and veteran staff alike to develop and refine their practices and to become more effective in implementing the IB MYP. O’Hanlon is a model teacher, a reliable and highly motivated staff member and an outstanding leader in her profession, but also as a member of the global community.
San Joaquin Elementary School
“I am thrilled to receive the [Parenting OC] Magazine Top Teacher nomination and the fact that this occurred during this incredibly difficult school year is an added honor. Through these challenging circumstances I have continuously endeavored to foster a positive and inclusive atmosphere where students will continue to thrive as lifelong learners. I feel so fortunate to be recognized and I am exceptionally grateful to my school, colleagues, community and to all my students.”
Katelyn Thompson’s passion to serve the school is reflected in her dedication as an elementary chair, Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) chair, and as member of the Leadership Committee. Her passion is also magnified through her role as Student Council advisor, Parent Teacher Association liaison and STEAM Elective Wheel pioneer. She launched the Kindness Initiative where students were challenged to complete acts of kindness. With such a positive outpouring of participation, San Joaquin was recognized as a Kindness Certified School and honored when the Medieval Times court “knighted” participating students. She continually emphasizes promoting school-wide positive expectations through her collaborative development of the PBIS initiative to meet the social, emotional, behavioral and academic needs of students. As the Student Council advisor, she directly empowers students to be leaders. She developed The Coalition program where students mentor other students, provide peer support and lead student activities. With an innovator’s mindset, she engages students with virtual and augmented reality experiences at STEAM Nights and routinely integrates them into her lessons.
Fairmont Preparatory Academy
“I feel so honored to have been nominated for doing something that I love. Teaching is my passion and I give my best to my students every day. Seeing their success in my classroom is the ultimate reward, and this nomination is a great way to celebrate that for me.”
Everyone knows a teacher who “goes the extra mile,” and then there’s Stephen Whitlock. If you are a genius when it comes to advanced math and you need a teacher who is going to challenge you and push you daily, Whitlock is your man. If you struggle in math and you need extra help before or after school, at lunch or all of the above, Whitlock is there for you. If you get bored easily and want advanced math classes with challenging and fun math competitions built into the curriculum, you are paired with the right teacher. Whitlock has been going the extra mile and then some while teaching at Fairmont Preparatory Academy for 10 years. His biggest strength by far is that he never lets anyone fall through the cracks. This is not easy when you teach algebra 2, pre-calculus and calculus. Whitlock is highly respected by his fellow teachers and has mentored several of them on how to incorporate math competitions into various classes. He is adored by the students and parents, which is exemplified by how many of his former students stop by to visit him regularly. Speaking of alumni, Whitlock is one as well, having graduated from the Fairmont Preparatory Academy 15 years ago.
Top 25 Teachers of Orange County 2021
Lake Forest Elementary
“I am extremely honored to be receiving this nomination. I am grateful for the recognition I have received for my work. This has been such a pivotal time in education. Proud to be a teacher. We inspire hope, ignite the imagination and instill a love of learning that will forever stay with our students. I am very sure that teachers across this nation are just as deserving of this recognition. Thank you.”
Rancho Santa Margarita Intermediate
“Being nominated as a Top 25 Teacher is a grand honor to say the least. During this pandemic year, all teachers have been stretched to the limit and the effect of the pandemic on our special ed students has been even more amplified. Being recognized as one who works diligently to support students is a shared nomination with all on my special ed team and RSM Intermediate. Thank you so much for the honor and recognition.”
Servite High School
“I love what I do and I am humbled and honored to be recognized for a role that I am passionate about. I am grateful to God, my incredible school, my students and my family that understands how important my calling is to me.”
Katherine (“Katie”) Fitch
Heritage Elementary School
“What an honor to be recognized for this award! I am inspired by the amazing educators and students I have the privilege of working with on a daily basis.”
Gordon H. Beatty Middle School
“I am humbled and honored to be nominated for this award. The nomination is a reminder that teaching is a profession that connects us to something larger than ourselves and now more than ever we are seeing the role that schools play in building community. I am grateful for the students, families, colleagues and staff that I have worked for and alongside over the years.”
Vibrant Minds Charter School
“I am deeply honored and humbled by this nomination, especially during these impossible challenges of the pandemic when my colleagues as well as teachers everywhere are doing such incredible work to continue connecting with and educating children. My gratitude goes to all inspiring educators who place young people at the center of our work and make profound differences in the lives of every child.”
Fairmont Private Schools, Anaheim Hills
“Every teacher this year deserves this award. I work with the most amazing, dedicated and talented teachers at Fairmont. They have chosen to put themselves aside to serve our students and our families. I am honored to be part of such a great group of educators who care so sincerely about others. This award is for all the teachers this year who are working tirelessly to educate young minds and help them thrive during these times.”
Orchard Hills School
“While this acknowledgement is very special, the real heroes right now are the students and their parents. The students are persisting with their studies despite social isolation, and parents are helping their kids succeed at distance learning and hybrid, often while working full-time jobs. I admire the resilience and growth mindset of our OC families!”
Sunset Lane Elementary School
“It is an honor to be nominated by colleagues for the Top Teachers of OC award for providing top education during a very challenging year. Being a teacher is indeed a labor of love, and I feel very inspired to be in the company of such extraordinary teachers. This year called for us to tap into our superhero powers and I feel privileged to have been recognized for going above and beyond for my students and their families.”
Tustin High School
“It is such an honor to receive this nomination. I love working with my students, making a difference in their lives and walking besides them as they prepare for life after high school.”
Robert C. Fisler School
“As a teacher, it is always an honor to be recognized for our hard work. This is a boost to my morale in these crazy teaching times. It encourages me to keep doing my best. I hope it encourages others too. Thank you for recognizing teachers in Orange County.”
International School of Orange County
“I am truly honored to be recognized and nominated for the 2021 Parenting OC Top Teacher award. I love my work and I am passionate about it, so to be appreciated and recognized for the work I do gives me great satisfaction. This makes me even more motivated to work harder and do better in the future.”
Heritage Oak Private Education
“Because this school year has been particularly challenging, this nomination makes me feel supported and appreciated for my efforts. I am honored to be included with this group of outstanding educators who share the same passion and dedication for teaching that I do. Guiding my students to think for themselves and to remain curious quenches my own lifelong love of learning.”
Friends Christian School
“Teaching has always been more than a job for me. It has been my passion to make a difference in children’s lives, and God has given me the privilege to fulfill that passion over the years. This award means so much to me because it signifies that others can see the effect that my passion has had in the lives of the children that I have had the opportunity to teach.”
St. Paul’s Lutheran
“This nomination means that I am blessed. I am blessed to work with students and parents who appreciate me and bring me joy. It is an amazing and humbling feeling to be appreciated by people I care so much about.”