Their school administrators describe what makes them the best in their class
With over 125 principals and school superintendents taking the time to write essays to sing the praises of talented teachers of Orange County, our job was not easy this year. From mummifying chickens during an Egypt chapter to desks tossed on their sides to ward off paper-ball-mortars during a classroom “trench warfare” conflict — these educators went above and beyond using creativity to truly engage students in lessons they would remember long after walking through those school doors into the future. From sacrificed Spring Break vacations to weekend visits to the classroom to prep for the following week, the sheer amount of hours these professionals put in to ensure our kids are sent out into the world to be the best humans they can be is incredible. Orange County is simply a better place for their efforts and we are thrilled to have a platform to celebrate such hard work and dedication.
Read the full versions of the top 25 teachers, as well as all of the other amazing teachers who were nominated!
Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Anaheim
Top Teacher of OC 2016
Joan Cowan has been teaching elementary school for 28 years, and every day in her classroom is like a master class in effective, joyful instruction. She is respected as a leader throughout the Magnolia School District, regularly presenting at Staff Development trainings and workshops. Over the years, Joan has probably been on every educational committee in existence: Leadership, Social Committee, Curriculum Adoption Committees, and the Positive Behavior committee are just a few. She is always willing to share her insight and knowledge with others, often guiding student teachers as they begin their careers, with more than one of our District’s exemplary teachers citing Joan Cowan as the source of their success. Veteran teachers bring visitors from other Districts to see Joan teach, and in the process learn some new strategies themselves.
However, the place where Joan truly shines is with her students. The children are greeted every day with enthusiasm and a genuine smile. She provides a nearly perfect balance of high expectations with emotional and academic support for her students. Over 60% of Schweitzer students are English Learners, and over 90% of students are Socio-Economically Disadvantaged. 24% are classified McKinney Vento (homeless or unstable housing). When kindergarten teachers identify students as emotionally or academically struggling, their first choice of placement for the next year is Joan.
The front row of her carpet is ‘By Invitation Only’ for first graders who are treated like VIPs, while they receive the extra TLC they need. Recently, one of her students was having a terrible day and finally decided to curl up in a little ball in the hallway. Joan sat down right next to him on the cold concrete and patted his shoulder while simultaneously giving directions to the class to get started on the next activity.
Joan cares deeply for her students, and knows that making them successful academically is the greatest gift she can give them. Before there were Professional Learning Communities, Joan led her grade level team in looking at student data. All first graders are her students, and she selects the students with the lowest reading scores to teach during daily intervention groups. The first grade scores at Schweitzer regularly outperform comparable schools in the District, with credit going to Joan and her team. She is an energetic, funny, caring teacher, who wants nothing more than to continue improving children’s lives.
Helen Dowser — FINALIST
Orangewood Academy, Garden Grove
Helen Dowser has taught for 43 years, 33 at Orangewood. The first to school and often the last to leave, Dowser was using differentiated instruction before the term was coined. In AP Biology, students dissect a cat and travel to compare the dissolved oxygen between the Santa Ana River and the mouth of the Pacific. In Anatomy and Physiology class, bone and brain dissections are followed by student-designed brochures of the diseases of the muscular skeletal system. In Biology, a week-long field trip to Zion National Park in Utah to do “Quad Studies” comparing ecosystems by in-depth comparison of biotic and abiotic factors follows a campus of students armed with old-fashioned butterfly nets, catching bugs for their insect project. Helen’s classroom is always open for extra tutoring help, or just to talk about life.
John Ebbe — FINALIST
Servite High School, Anaheim
In 40 years, John Ebbe has inspired generations of students. History was an epic narrative, an action adventure of romance and tragedy with John impersonating all the historical players involved. Students could not bear to miss a single day, desperate to hear what would happen next. Great historical figures —Washington, Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony — were not statues simply to be revered, but real humans with shortcomings and virtue, making his students think that did not have to be perfect to have a positive impact on their communities. Student success came not only via Advanced Placement Exams (often 100% pass rates), but in formative lessons; the significance of dressing how you want to be treated, the dangers of underage drinking, that procrastination is a sin, the value of one’s words and promises, among others. Ebbe is a resource woven into the school fabric; coaching, moderating numerous clubs, and mentoring new teachers.
Janet Smith — FINALIST
Mabel L. Pendleton, Buena Park
Whenever there is a need on campus, Jan Smith is always the first to say, “I can do it,” And she can. Smith is paving the way with STEM projects, spearheading an Eco-School initiative, fearlessly diving into 21st Century instruction, and mentoring struggling students. She works tirelessly to ensure that all students, not just her own, have the ability to attend science camp regardless of economic background. She wrangles up sleeping bags and jackets for kids who can’t afford them and tirelessly fundraises with students to raise money for camp tuition. Smith uses her own money to store and care for the items she collects, so they can be used again and again for future students. She works to provide backpacks and supplies for students who need them, and works fundraisers in order to supply scholarships to promising young teachers.
Bruno Thomas — FINALIST
International School of Los Angeles, Orange
Entering Monsieur Thomas’ fourth grade classroom, you find, “J’entends, j’oublie. Je vois, je me souviens. Je fais, je comprends” in bold letters. Confucius’ “I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand” is the philosophy of a classroom with a corner of beanbag chairs and cushions where students can “relax” after finishing their work, enjoying brainteasers, coding, puzzles and mandala coloring. The classroom is either a buzzing beehive or a Zen garden where deep thinkers might be found, pondering life. When tragic terrorist events unfolded in Paris, the former French Alps Ski Instructor engaged students at their own level, helping them cope while showing their support by drawing posters in his art class. His students benefit from enriching events like the Time Capsule Overnight field trip with the Ocean Institute and the SCORE program with the Anaheim Ducks, where OC fourth graders compete in an annual street hockey tournament.
Tustin Connect Online Center, Tustin
Kristy Andre was instrumental in opening up the new blended learning K-8 school for Tustin Unified. Mrs. Andre is the lead middle school teacher, creating curriculum and coordinating learning in all subject areas for grades 6-8. For the past two years, she has acted as Digital Learning Coach assisting elementary and middle school teachers in creating rigorous and engaging lessons that prepare students for their future. She is an ISTE 2014 Emerging Leader and a Google Educator. Mrs. Andre has presented her ideas at the annual Computer Using Educator (CUE) conference and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference and will be presenting again at CUE this March to educators from around the world.
St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, San Juan Capistrano
Through her 30+ year career, Mrs. Andrews has possessed a joy-filled deep commitment to a learning-through play model for the youngest learners to best set them up for future academic and social success. She envisioned and built a one-of-a-kind outdoor science lab with live chickens, sustainable garden, artist’s studio, library, symphony hall, theater and gym — identified as a model for other schools by the California Outdoor Classroom Project. Andrews led the integration of large touchscreen tabletop devices in the preschool where students gather around the tabletops to interact with rich-media content, learning apps and games, and create and manipulate content. Her true love of children and their natural wonder, curiosity and creativity that has driven her steadfast commitment to providing an outstanding, developmentally-appropriate education for young children throughout her impeccable career. Andrews will retire at the end of the school year as one of the truly great teachers of Orange County and beyond.
Dr. Joseph Arias
Weaver Elementary School, Los Alamitos
What is unique about Dr. Joseph Arias’ teaching is his inquiry-based approach. Each lesson begins with a question posed that will launch students into an investigative journey toward new, authentic learning. This instills within his students a natural excitement, curiosity, and thirst for knowledge. Weaver is a demonstration school for the Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching. The facilitators of Cotsen always request Arias’s classroom as one of the destination classrooms for walkthroughs due to his expertise, passion, high expectations, personal accountability, and humility. Arias takes a genuine interest and personal concern for the wellbeing of each student. His recent email to a parent who had lost her mother, “Mothers are special and irreplaceable. Know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Be safe and kind to yourself,” illustrates the kind of personal service and support he truly encompasses for each of his students and their families.
Columbus Tustin Middle School, Tustin
Rich Avellana is an educator who makes a significant difference in the lives of teachers and students. Rich has a positive attitude and consistently and effectively differentiates instruction to meet the needs of all kids in AVID, Core 6, and Core 8. Rich, a former Digital Learning Coach, has an edge on technology. He integrates technology into his classroom lessons every day and knows how to engage tougher-to-reach students, particularly our intermediate and beginning level English Learners. Rich also serves as an Athletic Director. He coaches basketball and volleyball, a tough balance as he also volunteers as a coach in Saddleback Unified, where his children attend school. Rich Avellana is a treasured teacher whose dedication shines through the hours he devotes to the school community.
OCDE-ACCESS-North Euclid, Anaheim
As a special education teacher and advocate, Joe Bahash encourages all students to celebrate the differences that make each individual special. Bahash developed a unique learning center model for students with disabilities and a day planner featuring community resource information. In partnership with a school psychologist, he developed a social skills support group to meet the unique needs of adolescent males with disabilities in ACCESS. Bahash has taken students on field trips to an airplane museum, hiking, fishing, rock-climbing and snowboarding. One of Bahash’s passions is connecting students with volunteering, including working at an elderly home and collecting food for the local food bank. Joe works to build a relationship with parents, which helps him to understand the students’ needs. Sometimes it is just to provide community resources to help with food, clothing and basic necessities. Simple things we take for granted often open doors for our students.
Parks Junior High, Fullerton
Kim Barr is an outstanding English teacher who creates strong relationships with students while also ensuring they become the highest achieving students in ELA each year. She has been instrumental in starting a Fullerton Writers Guild class at her school in which students work with professional writers and other writing mentors to write an essay that are published in a book and sold at Barnes and Noble. Students participate in book signings at the store after it is published. She encourages her students to publish their writing and takes students to the annual LA Times Book Fair. Additionally, she has gamified her reading and writing curriculum so that learning grade level standards is accomplished in a highly engaging context. Students create geocaches, make movies, and Public Service Announcements to share with authentic audiences.
Heritage Oak Private Education, Yorba Linda
Tina Bloomingdale has done what many think is impossible—made math fun. Her love of math inspires and ability to connect with tweens makes her a favorite. “Middle School students are at a very vulnerable stage in their lives,” says Bloomingdale. “They inhabit a world of childhood and adulthood. I love being here to help them get through it.” She grades papers and makes lesson plans at home so that her free periods are available to students. She has an open door policy so students are often found in her classroom working with her during morning homeroom, lunchtime, study hall, and P.E. She attends as many athletic games and student performances as she can to show support to those who she interacts with on a daily basis and has taken on the role of “Spirit Leader” for the middle school team of teachers, celebrating special occasions.
Pillars Academy, Mission Viejo
Drawn to her soothing story telling skills, colleagues and parents gravitate to sit in on Amani Chalati’s classes. Beyond the late hours she spends preparing for projects and fun activities, she seeks out her colleagues to plan cross-disciplinary activities in addition to the dual language immersion activities she leads. Chalati uses music, expressive movement, performing and visual arts to ensure all her little ones are learning while enjoying their time in the classroom. Her enthusiasm to pioneer an immersion model for kindergarten contributed greatly to the language program at Pillars Academy. Not surprising, her teaching strategies and mentoring of colleagues were sought after for the weekend program. Driven by strong work ethic and a calling to serve, Chalati balances her time and energy to ensure all students are prioritized.
Capistrano Valley Christian School, San Juan Capistrano
Donald Easter dedicates himself to teach each student the way they learn so they really understand the material. He continually makes adjustments, updates to the latest tech and teaching methods, and stays ahead of the learning curve of “how students learn these days”. His AP Students in both AP Chemistry and AP Calculus consistently pass the AP Exam with Fours and Fives each year, with one five year stretch of 100% passing. Not only does Easter prepare students with high standards and course rigor to get the most out of them, he is involved almost daily in school extracurriculars. For over 30 years, Easter has coached cross-country, and operated our scoreboard for varsity football, both girls and boys volleyball, and both girls and boys basketball games. Easter almost never misses a day of work and has proven to be the most dedicated person not only to student learning, but to student support.
St. John’s Episcopal School
Sheryll Grogan teaches advanced math students in a high school equivalent algebra program for 7th and 8th grade students. She has also served as Science Department chair for the past 12 years and has been instrumental in helping research and establish a science program that provides hands-on laboratory experiences, while developing St. John’s STEAM approach to teaching and learning. Most recently, Grogan implemented a Rocketry unit sparking creative collaboration amongst the teachers, culminating with the blasting of rockets on the St. John’s athletic field (compete with a Go Pro attached). Afterwards the students were able to calculate the thrust, acceleration, and altitude of the rockets. Grogan plans and coordinates the sixth grade trip to Catalina Island while still making time to travel to Williamsburg and Washington D.C. with our 8th grade students.
La Habra High School, La Habra
During his time at LHHS, Mr. Imlay has distinguished himself as a high performing teacher leader and exemplary Physics teacher with AP pass rates of 90-100%. Mr. Imlay has worked as coordinator with the Highlander Student Targeted Enrichment Program (HiSTEP). HiSTEP provides all students with tutoring, leadership opportunities, and freshmen mentoring. Mr. Imlay trains our Link Crew mentors who assist our freshmen students to become model students and get involved in our campus. Both HiSTEP and Link Crew have transformed our campus in a myriad of positive ways and revolutionized our school culture, lunch time procedures, and motivation on campus. These programs have made a positive impact on our campus with D/F rates dropping 20% and we have also seen a significant improvement in our behavior and attendance issues.
Roy O Anderson, Newport Beach
With the Common Core State Standards, Donna Jacobs went above and beyond to prepare by taking classes in the integration of technology in the classroom. She used her GATE training to prepare engaging and rigorous activities in her classroom. Students dance to math chants or sing directions to a learning task. She purchased an elaborate incubator in order to hatch ducks when studying farm animals. The students’ excitement was beyond measure as little ducklings hatched and then eventually swam in the kiddie pool Jacobs provided. Never a weekend goes by that Jacobs is not in her classroom to ensure that every aspect of the school week is planned and ready for her students. She has impeccable work ethic and willingness to take on whatever challenges or responsibilities asked of her. Students come back year after year to visit and share their educational journeys and credit much of their success to the strong foundation Jacobs provided.
Golden Elementary, Placentia
Gloria Johnson is not only a sixth grade teacher, but Student Council Advisor, APLE representative, PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention System) Team representative and Grade Level Chair. She has coordinated Golden 6th grade Outdoor Education for more than 20 years, ensuring students have an experience they will always remember. She helps new students and ‘fills the gaps’ to get them ready for intermediate school. Last year a student arrived who had been moving place to place with her mother in another state. This young lady was woefully behind and was in the safe haven of an aunt. Johnson tutored this young 6th grade student after school. When she realized that the student needed a new computer, she bought the computer out of her own pocket. She sheltered, cajoled, nurtured, used tough love and ultimately helped turn the life of this student around. There are countless stories of Johnson never giving up on her students.
Mariners Christian School, Costa Mesa
With over 20 years of teaching experience in 4th grade, Kristin Knecht desires to know the unique dreams and aspirations of each student in the classroom in order to make learning come alive. Dedicated to modeling a commitment to be a lifelong learner, Knecht is “that teacher” who always requests to attend the latest professional development opportunity, from the California Math Council Conference to the latest training on Literacy from Columbia University Teacher College Reading and Writing Program. Drama and theater is a passion and she explodes with enthusiasm in complete character when doing a Read Aloud. Knecht implemented a new national standardized assessment program called MAP (Measure of Academic Progress), served on the school’s accreditation steering committee, the admissions committee, and is instrumental in co- leading a group of 130 parents and 4th grade students to Sacramento and San Francisco as we make social studies standards come alive.
John Muir Fundamental School, Santa Ana
Principals often talk about their “lighthouse” teachers that other educators look to for guidance. Fran Kramer, a Kindergarten teacher at John Muir Fundamental School in Santa Ana, is one of those teachers. She is a nationally recognized instructional leader whose teacher blog “Kindergarten Crayons” is followed by hundreds of kindergarten teachers, providing many of her instructional materials on the website “Teachers pay Teachers”. Kramer helped create the Santa Ana Unified School District’s kindergarten Common Core State Standards curriculum, but is focused not just with instructional needs of her class without equal concern to the emotional needs of her students. She keeps in constant contact with classroom parents to let them how the children are doing, building rich relationships that continue as younger siblings pass through her classroom doors.
Jose Paolo Magcalas
Loara High School, Anaheim
When students talk about who has made a difference in their lives, Paolo Magcalas comes up time and time again. Magcalas’ dedication to community inspired his Ethnic Studies course, now being considered throughout the district. Paolo encourages his students to be active members in their community as a leader in the California Democracy initiative, part of the Bridges program, and the advisor to various campus clubs. He creates each lesson to be a memorable experience. For example, he brings WWI to life when the class re-enacts trench warfare by creating trenches with tipped over desks, paper balls as grenades and if the student is unlucky could get “poked” by a bayonet. Some die twice. Outside the classroom, he takes students to conferences such as “Walk in My Shoes” to promote student advocacy and encourages them to participate in outreach programs such as the AUHSD Servathon to feed the homeless.
The Pegasus School, Huntington Beach
Johna Ropel brings life to a science program for young learners through movement, games, hands-on experiments and her incredible enthusiasm. Around campus, Ropel can be seen walking “Guapo,” the bearded dragon. Her love of animals and the world around her is infectious. By creating a safe environment in the classroom where every idea can be shared, Ropel incorporates scientific connections to reality so that her students can understand that science is all around and offers them to explore the depths. Whether it be dancing with Mr. Bones (her skeleton) to reinforce the identification of the bones in the human body, or studying forensics by creating a faux crime scene of “Who stole the cupcakes?” Ropel uses an enchanting curriculum to push her students to be their own scientist and embrace their uniqueness and abilities to succeed academically.
Walt Disney School, Anaheim
Katherine Smith-Brooks implements superior strategies, such as the use of the GATE icons, to deepen students’ understanding of complex subjects. Through the SMART Board, she utilizes the EDI lesson design model to provide rigorous and engaging lessons. Technology is an integral part of her program and an ongoing bridge between herself and her students. Many a late evening and weekend, Katherine continues to engage with her students through rich online discussions, by answering questions, and providing writing feedback using Google Classroom. After an extensive study of Ancient Egypt, students were given the opportunity to apply their knowledge by mummifying an actual chicken. As a result of her high standards, rigorous program, and excellent teaching, many of her students year after year consistently gain entrance into the Oxford Academy and meet and exceed standard on state assessments. She consistently serves on Leadership, as Yearbook advisor and as a PAR consulting teacher.
Patricia Van Deudekom
New Horizon School, Irvine
Kindergarten is the perfect grade level to have a talented and kind teacher because kindergarten success sets the tone for many years to come. Students enter Patricia Van Deudekom’s class with barely the basics of the alphabet and numbers, and leave at the end of the year reading and doing mathematics – often above grade-level. She not only cares about academic achievements, but good values, implementing a “Leader in Me” program. Her students have initiated drives and collecting change to support a variety of causes. At the end-of-year kindergarten graduation ceremony, Van Deudekom and her partner-in-kindergarten read off the exceptional traits of each student and project into the future what each child’s career may be ‘when they grow up’ based upon those traits, a beloved demonstration of how well Van Deudekom knows her students.
Oakridge Private School, Orange
If you ask any older student whose class they remember, Laura Wolfe’s name will always come up. Wolfe established a school-wide Character Education Program using six attributes that each child recognizes, acknowledges, and is held accountable for. In addition, the “Big Buddies” program was developed, which pairs third through eighth grade classes with the younger classes. Classes meet with their buddies each week. Big Buddies help their Little Buddies with reading, writing, math, and art projects. Wolfe also created the Peer Mentoring Program, which pairs Middle School students with elementary students to create friendships and relationships. This one-on-one mentoring program has proven to be very successful with both the younger and older students. Mentors meet with their mentees approximately 1-5 times per month. Wolfe’s goals are simple. She strives to provide a safe, warm learning environment, and she challenges her students to become independent thinkers and lifelong learners.