We sit down with past Top Teacher winners to find out what they’ve been up to since their big win.
Top Teacher 2022
Background: Zoellner is currently teaching a combination class with kindergarten and first grade. When winning the award, she was teaching first grade. She has spent her entire 27-year teaching career at Commonwealth Elementary School in Fullerton.
Why She Won: Zoellner was known for really engaging her students and sparking excitement with the subject matter every day. She went above and beyond, including setting up a teaching space in her home for remote and hybrid learning and adapting to technology necessary to engage students and their families during the pandemic. Zoellner tries to really make a difference in her student’s lives daily.
Where Is She Now?
“In the classroom, I strive to continue to find innovative ways to incorporate technology and robotics into the curriculum. I also serve on our school’s leadership team and school site council. I recently enrolled in Grand Canyon University to pursue a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction.”
Top Teacher 2021
Background: AP biology teacher and Medical Certificate Program director at Beckman High School in Irvine.
Why He Won: Chow is known for the open dialog he keeps with his students. The first thing he does upon meeting students is allow them to ask him any three questions of their choice. The question he gets most often is, “Why are you so happy?” Chow has a mountain of energy for teaching because he is in it for the fulfillment and this profession truly is his passion. He says he is filled with gratitude because of all the positives in his life and this carries over to his work in the classroom. He has also created unique initiatives like MrChowPodcast on YouTube for his students.
Where Is He Now? “My family has grown since 2021! We have a beautiful son and a beautiful daughter who will be born spring 2023! I believe that becoming a parent has positively impacted my teaching and helped me better understand the students/parents that I work alongside every day.
Each winter break, I have been offering free life skills courses online for students ranging from a Finance course, Skilled Trades course, Insurance course and Character course! Each of them are certificate programs in which students can earn a free certificate after completing all of the learning modules. Since winter break 2020, over 1,000 students have successfully completed a course and I plan to continue to offer a new life skills enrichment course each year!
Our Medical Certificate Program has grown in size to now educating over 500 high school students, inviting over 60 guest speakers/mentors with over 20 in-person events that happen on our campus each year! This past fall, we launched a new event called ‘Medical Skills Day’ in collaboration with 16 volunteers from Chapman University where students rotated through eight stations where they learned and experienced: How to read basic X-rays, CPR, practice injections w/ syringes, how to draw blood from a practice Phlebotomy Practice Arm, learned about how EKGs/ECGs are used, learned about oxygen saturation in blood, performed a hands-on experience of suturing a wound, learned about good medical bedside manner, how to take vitals of patients, how to calculate BMI, human anatomy and practiced using a EpiPen trainer pen.
Each summer, I teach a four-week High School Summer Leadership class and it has been awesome! I get to train about 60 students on Leadership Fundamentals, Public Speaking skills, Interview skills and sales/negotiation skills and it’s super fun! We bring in industry professionals to mentor/train our students and it has absolutely been a highlight of my summer!”
Top Teacher 2020
Background: She’s an adapted physical education specialist for preschool through 12th grade for Brea Olinda Unified School District.
Why She Won: Givenrod is the only adapted physical education specialist in her district, and this position provides K-12 students with gross motor skill delays specialized services that cater to their needs. She created several inclusion programs such as Unified PE and Unified Sports to provide students with all abilities the opportunity to engage in physical education. Her dedication to her students from 3 years old to graduation age and their families was unmatched in the Brea area as she guides her students every step of the way as they grow up.
Where Is She Now?
“I continue to serve as an adapted physical education specialist in Brea and teach Unified PE at my secondary schools. Since being recognized as the Top Teacher, there have been a few other recognitions. In 2020, I was awarded the CAHPERD (California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance — this is the professional organization for the state of CA) Adapted Physical Education Teacher of the Year for the State of California. I was then awarded the SHAPE America (the national professional organization for physical education) 2022 Western District Teacher of the Year for Adapted Physical Education. This means that I was the Teacher of the Year (TOY) for 11 Western states and was one of four teachers in the country up for national TOY. I didn’t win national, but it was a wild ride and I’m very proud of how far I got. As a result of these recognitions, I have traveled to several states to speak at conferences and a big highlight was being a keynote speaker at the National Adapted Physical Education Conference (NAPEC) in November of 2022.”
Top Teacher 2019
Background: She’s currently an eighth-grade English/literature and sixth-grade literature teacher at Heritage Oak in Yorba Linda.
Why She Won: Leimkuhler’s creativity in teaching English and making meaningful connections between the novels she introduces to her students is a key reason why she was recognized as the Top Teacher. She has taught students in a variety of hands-on ways including rotating activity centers, escape rooms and collaborative projects, which inspire thought-provoking class discussions. English can be a difficult course for students to connect with, but Leimkuler’s creativity with programs like BRAWL, which is a competitive Socratic Seminar done in teams, has sparked major interest in her classes.
Where Is She Now?
“I am still teaching eighth-grade English and literature, and I also teach one period of sixth-grade literature, which is really different and fun! This year I became a mentor teacher to our school’s new English teacher, which allows me to guide this person and collaborate in many ways. I am also a ‘lead teacher,’ so I represent our school in meetings with our parent company and help to facilitate new teaching methods. While teaching has evolved since the lockdown era, I still love it because of the students and our connections. This year I have a group of girls who recommend books to me and we always discuss them, so that’s been a fun component of teaching this year! When there are tough days, I always remember my ‘why,’ and that will always be the students.”
Top Teacher 2018
Background: Kindergarten teacher at Far Horizons, now renamed Nobis Montessori, in Orange.
Why She Won: Dowicki was called a “real-life Mary Poppins” to her students as she showed up to every class with brightly colored outfits, flowers in her hair and an extremely caring nature toward all of her kindergarteners — she has even gone as far as releasing butterflies her students have grown within the classroom. She was known for treating each student with individuality, catering her lessons with the very specific and unique needs of every student. Dowicki kept students engaged with learning and sparked curiosity and creativity with every lesson.
Where Is She Now? “After being blessed with the Top Teacher Award, the owner and director of our school, Mrs. Nora Cunningham, wanted me to become a teaching consultant and guide colleagues as they taught. I worked in different classrooms with at least three new teachers, perfecting their techniques and training them in the Montessori method. It was so gratifying to watch new colleagues blossom and become innovative and confident. The students loved having two teachers to instruct them and I learned so much because I had more time to observe and create new and exciting strategies for presenting materials. We were planning on expanding my teacher training program but COVID hit and we had to switch to online teaching. I would have loved to continue with the consulting program as it was very rewarding.
“Mrs. Cunningham has recently sold the school and it is now called Nobis Montessori. I have stayed in touch with many families who often ask if I will be returning. They send photos and info about the students and their progress!
Now I am concentrating on my home life with my family, doing charity work and working on writing a few children’s stories.”
Supplied images in DB. There should also be photos in archives of all winners.
By Jessie Dax-Setkus