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County Teachers of the Year honored for exceptional education

One teacher is a musician who fell in love with math, while another planned to be a doctor, but became entranced by woodworking.

A kindergarten teacher helps the youngest students from some of the poorest neighborhoods, and the others help students explore film and English literature, or use gardening to create an outdoor learning lab.

On Saturday, five educators earned the title of San Diego County Teacher of the Year at the 27th annual “Cox Presents: Salute to Teachers,” a tribute that county Superintendent of Schools Paul Gothold said reflects their unique talents.

“Get to know this diverse group however, and you’ll find the teachers share a couple of common traits: connecting with and compassion for students,” Gothold said.

The annual award ceremony, sponsored by San Diego County Credit Union and the San Diego County Office of Education, was broadcast live from Balboa Theatre Saturday night, and celebrates the work of San Diego County’s 22,000 public school teachers.

The five teachers honored were selected from 10 finalists, out of a field of 44 nominees from districts throughout the county.

A panel of judges including former county teachers of the year and school administrators evaluated the nominees on criteria including student achievement, teaching philosophy, and ability to serve as ambassadors of education, among others. The five county recipients will represent San Diego in the California Teacher of the Year program, which will announce a winner later this fall.

Jaime Brown: San Diego High School of International Studies, San Diego Unified School District

Ensuring that students feel welcomed in her classes is key to their learning, according to English and film studies teacher Jaime Brown.

She opens her classroom to discussion of news events, such as the presidential election, when students need to share their thoughts on important subjects. And she keeps a box of their top work and thank you notes, to remind herself of her purpose at the school.

Brown, a daughter of a Japanese-American mother and Irish-American father, experienced what it meant to be unwelcome in a schoolroom, when one of her own former teachers at a school she attended in Texas made disparaging assumptions about her ethnicity and academic abilities.

“I never wanted any student to feel the way I felt,” she wrote in her application. “Squelched. Belittled. And unfairly judged.”

She finished her education in San Diego, graduating from the same high school where she now teaches, and then earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from UC Berkeley, a teaching credential from San Diego State University, and a master’s degree in education from the University of San Diego.

Brown said she views teachers’ primary roles as “empowering their students — with knowledge, with intellectual perseverance, with thoughtfulness — to use their own voices effectively.”

Through her International Baccalaureate Film Studies class, she involves students in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, coordinates a film festival of her school’s student work, and has invited members of the San Diego Film Critics Society to speak to her classes.

“Jaime embodies a ‘you can do it and I’m here to support you’ attitude by ensuring students have voice in their education,” her principal Carmen Garcia wrote.

Camden Flores: Kempton Street Literacy Academy, La Mesa-Spring Valley School District

Kindergarteners in Camden Flores’ class at Kempton Street Literacy Academy know that whatever happened that morning at home, they will get a warm greeting at school.

“I reach out to every child — every day — and make a connection,” she wrote. “I take time to say hello to each child. I make a joke, or give a high five.”

Any kindergartener enjoys that kind of personal attention, but Flores’ students, from a highly impoverished neighborhood, really need it, she wrote in her application.

“I work constantly to create a welcoming environment where my children feel safe and primed for learning,” she wrote.

When students come to school hungry, stressed or angry, Flores can relate. Growing up in a troubled family, she knew what it was like to have a parent working long hours to make ends meet, to scrimp on groceries, and fall behind in school.

Only after she enrolled in community college did she realize that she had never learned how to learn. Developing that skill, she wrote, “fostered my resiliency and grit.”

“I experienced firsthand how education can change your outlook and your life,” Flores wrote.

She earned her Bachelor of Arts in applied linguistics and teaching credential from San Diego State University, and her Master of Science in education from National University.

She deliberately sought a teaching position at a disadvantaged school, reasoning that this was where she could make the most difference. For 20 years she taught at Bancroft Community School in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, a campus where 93 percent of students come from low-income families, according to her former principal. This school year she transferred to Kempton, which has a similar population.

“In her career, Camden has cast many ‘ripples of kindness,’” her fellow teacher Laramie Littig wrote.

In addition, she mentors foster youth, coordinates a program to match teachers with at-risk students, and runs an afterschool program to train a group of girls to run a 5K race together.

“I believed I could be a voice for the voiceless — hope for those feeling hopeless,” Flores wrote. “I found my calling, and even now as a veteran teacher, I still wake up grateful for that decision.”

Mark Lantsberger: Del Norte High School, Poway Unified School District

Computer science teacher Mark Lantsberger confesses that he was an indifferent student in high school, focusing instead on music.

A bass player, he played styles ranging from orchestral music to heavy metal, and still sports a Mohawk hairstyle that reflects his roots as a rocker. After working as a professional musician and paint manufacturer, however, he enrolled in an algebra class at community college that changed his mind about math forever.

“Is this what they really meant back there in high school?” he recalled thinking. “I get it now. This math stuff is AWESOME.”

Through his newfound fascination with math, he discovered computer science, and began writing code for digital musical recordings. Along the way, he wondered if could inspire other young people to love the language of math.

Lantsberger earned a Bachelor of Science in mathematics with a minor in computer science, as well as a teaching credential, from Cal State Hayward. He taught math, and developed computer science curriculum, at schools in Northern California, Washington and Italy, before moving to Poway.

In his classes, the lessons are about coding, but the message is about logic and persistence.

“My favorite part, by far, is the way he promotes free thought and creativity in his class,” one of his students, Bailey Deck, wrote in a recommendation letter for Lantsberger.

He advises the school computer club, maintains a “digital classroom” through the internet, and also opens his lab before and after school for students to work on projects and have “a bit of ‘smart’ fun.’”

“They come in believing they’ll learn about technology and then realize they’ve been learning how to think,” he said.

Ben Swearingen: Imperial Beach Charter School, South Bay Union School District

Even if it takes all year to reach a student, fifth grade teacher Benjamin Swearingen considers it worth it to encourage them.

“I believe that making students feel welcome as who they are and what they bring to the classroom is the foundation for effective education,” he wrote in his application. “Once a person feels accepted and valued, they are open to learning, creativity and risk taking.”

That personal attention sets Swearingen apart, South Bay Superintendent Katie McNamara wrote.

“This ability to connect with students and their families is one of Ben’s many gifts,” she wrote.

Swearingen came to education through international experiences. As a foreign exchange student in Senegal, West Africa, he saw how a talented Senegalese friend missed out on education, after leaving school at an early age to support his family.

“For the first time, I truly appreciated the incredible privilege and opportunity of my American education,” Swearingen wrote.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology and French, with a minor in biology from the University of Texas, Austin, and then a teaching credential from Cal State Sacramento.

He became an activist for affirmative action, a bilingual teacher’s aide to migrant students, and then studied in Mexico and California through a cross-cultural teaching program.

And the school garden that Swearingen has nurtured is one of the places where students feel at home on the campus. Through grants that he received, he and colleagues built the school’s vegetable garden with raised beds, and irrigation system and a little red barn.

“By bringing together parents, teachers and their students, the school garden grows not just vegetables,” he wrote. “It grows community.”

Kathy Worley: West Hills High School, Grossmont Union School District

Woodshop instructor Kathy Worley teaches students the fundamentals of safety and construction, but lets them run with their own creativity and imagination.

“I am always amazed by what the students produce by their own design,” she wrote in her application.

She runs a “tight ship,” her students Braxton Dyke and Paolo Ballarin wrote, and is “caring, while still being firm and strict.”

The class teaches technical skills, but incorporates aspects of math, engineering and communications in students’ projects.

“They must sketch, measure, calculate distances and express…


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