Passion for students kept these Orange County Teachers of the Year going in 2019
Fullerton College geography professor Aline Gregorio knew something wasn’t right when a student she had never seen before sat in for her midterm exam, getting to number 37 on the 100-question test before standing up and leaving.
A few minutes later, the student returned with a camera and an entourage of officials.
That’s when everything clicked for Gregorio: The student, working for the college’s newspaper, “The Hornet,” was there to capture the moment she learned she was chosen as one of the six top teachers in the county.
The teachers surprised in the Orange County Department of Education’s awards tour on Wednesday, May 1, were chosen from 64 educators nominated for this year’s award by the county’s school districts. The honorees will attend a banquet at the Disneyland Hotel in November and compete for California Teachers of the Year.
Gregorio, a native of Brazil, has been teaching geography at Fullerton College for three years.
Through speakers, symposiums, field research and film screenings, Gregorio teaches her students about real-world events such as the ongoing depletion of natural resources or how the North American Free Trade Agreement propelled immigration from Latin American countries to the United States.
“That’s what geography is,” she said. “Geography is about understanding the connections between people and places.”
Mandy Kelly, sixth-grade teacher, Trabuco Mesa Elementary, Rancho Santa Margarita
In 2016, Kelly assigned her students to do a random act of kindness every day for a month.
That short assignment evolved into a year-long campaign of helping others.
Last year, the students started making YouTube videos sharing suggestions and encouragement for others to start doing their own random acts of kindness. Kelly said nearly 200 classes from around the world have accepted her students’ challenge.
Kelly also infuses her class lessons with virtual reality and other emerging technologies and encourages project-based learning.
On Wednesday, the students were draped in sheets for their Greek Week lessons on the history of city-states. They cheered as Kelly was presented her award.
“I truly love this job. You kids know you are the reason I’m here,” Kelly said, her voice breaking. “You push me as much as I do.”
De’Anna Moore, fourth-grade teacher, Crescent Elementary, Anaheim
Students rushed to hug Moore minutes after she got the news she was chosen as a top teacher.
“My heart is here making a difference,” she said, holding back her tears. She has taught at the campus for 16 years.
Moore said she pushes her students every day to become responsible citizens. She asks them to volunteer in the community, to help each other with schoolwork or to just cheer each other up.
To encourage leadership she has the students run the first 20 minutes of her class. The class vice president recites the Pledge of Allegiance. The speaker of the house reads an inspiring quote. The secretary of agriculture checks who’s getting which lunch menu.
“We are all leaders in our classroom,” she said.
Melissa Brennan, special day class teacher, Mattie Lou Maxwell Elementary, Anaheim
Brennan teaches students from transitional kindergarten through first grade, so managing her class isn’t an easy feat.
When the group of kindergartners in her class got excited and started running around as the awards committee surprised Brennan with her honor, she rang a bell and declared “Freeze!” Her students did just that and gathered around to hear more about their top teacher.
The job can be draining, said Brennan, who started with the Magnolia School District in 2003, but seeing what her students achieve each day has kept her going.
“It’s simply the students,” she said. “There are smiles every day. There are hugs every day.”
She has helped many transition out of special education services, officials said. For example, with Brennan’s help a student diagnosed with autism became the top reader in his general education first-grade class.
Melinda Moen, art teacher, Western High, Anaheim
For Moen, art isn’t just created on a canvass.
Drawings on Post-it notes by hundreds of students have been stitched together to form a mural. Students have chalked sidewalks and black tops with drawings to celebrate diversity.
“I get bored, so I have to switch it up,” she said, now in her 14th year at Western.
For Moen, art is also about celebrating one’s story and dreams. One of her class projects is for students to depict a timeline of their lives through art. When the awards committee visited, the students were sketching four words that described their identity.
Students who are shy or disconnected have found their voice through artwork in Moen’s class, officials said.
“We need to support more teachers who allow you to express yourself through art,” Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Michael Matsuda said.
Gavin Ehlers, science teacher, Marina High, Huntington Beach
Ehlers was just finishing up teaching his biology students about the nervous system when he got pulled out of his classroom to be greeted by the school’s marching band and cheerleaders.
“I’m blown away,” he said. “It’s not often you’ll catch me speechless, but I’m struggling to grasp words.”
Ehlers has developed a unique style of teaching, officials said. For instance, in a debate-style forum, he lets his students defend their responses on tests.
Ehlers started his teaching career at Marina with the 2007-08 school year. He’s the science department coordinator and teaches AP Biology and accelerated biology.
Enrollment in the advanced placement biology classes have spiked from 35 students to 100 during his tenure, with at least 80 percent passing.
But Ehlers also reminds himself to have some fun along the way, he said, whether “dancing like an idiot” at school rallies or getting roasted by fellow teachers.
“If we are not having fun, what’s the point?”