A whirlwind year ending for one of Orange County’s Teachers of the Year

Tustin Memorial Academy teacher Courtney Smith rode on a convertible during a parade, traveled to Washington, D.C., and received $15,000 after being named an Orange County Teacher of the Year last spring.

But the best reward, she said, was having the chance to share teaching practices with other educators she’s met, mentoring colleagues at her campus, and using her status as one of the county’s top teachers to secure grants that helped improve technology and increase professional development at her school.

Courtney Smith Teacher of the Year helps students
2017 Orange County Teacher of the Year Courtney Smith helps her students complete a project during a recent lesson.

“It’s been an amazing year, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” said the kindergarten teacher. “But overall, the award has allowed me to make stronger connections with my fellow teachers.”

Last May, the Orange County Department of Education selected five educators as 2017 Orange County Teachers of the Year. Besides Smith, the other four were Raquel Solorzano-Dueñas, a U.S. history teacher at Western High in Anaheim Union; Matthew Bidwell, a science teacher at South Junior High School, also in Anaheim Union; Kristine Clarke, a science teacher at Dana Hills High in Capistrano Unified; and Steven Bautista, a professor at Santa Ana College.

Each winner received a $15,000 cash prize courtesy of the Dr. James Hines Foundation, and was presented with additional prizes by sponsors Disney and SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union. The department will name a new batch of Orange County Teachers of the Year next month.

For Smith, a veteran teacher of 19 years, the last 12 months included a ride atop a convertible during the annual Tustin Tiller Days parade where she wore a sash and waved at the crowd “like a beauty pageant winner,” she said.

Courtney Smith in last year’s Tustin Tiller Days parade

Her principal also chose Smith to accompany her to Washington, D.C. for a ceremony honoring National Blue Ribbon Schools, which Tustin Memorial won last year. She put into savings much of the $15,000 prize. But she plans to use some of the cash to travel with her husband and three children to Cabo San Lucas this summer, where she hopes to swim with dolphins.

Still, Smith said her most memorable experiences have to do with how the award affected her work in the classroom, and at her school.

“It became a lot easier to reach out and work with other teachers,” Smith said. As part of being a Teacher of the Year, Smith traversed the county and state, meeting with different educators to share her classroom techniques and philosophy.

One of the most popular lessons she helped introduce to fellow teachers is Breakout EDU, an immersive learning game platform modeled after escape room puzzle games.

Courtney Smith asks her students to pay attention as she wraps up her lesson
Kindergarten teacher Courtney Smith, from Tustin Memorial Academy, will end her reign as an Orange County Teacher of the Year when the 2018 winners are chosen in May.

Through the lesson, students use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging math, science, language and other classroom puzzles in order to open the locked box. The puzzles can be geared for students in any grade level. Smith has helped dozens of other teachers across her school and other campuses introduce the program as part of their regular lessons.

Smith also helped Tustin Memorial secure three grants over the past year — one to fund a school wide STEM Innovation Lab, another to create a program to boost parental involvement, and the third to send teachers from her school to an upcoming math conference in Seattle.

“Courtney is definitely something special,” said Tustin Memorial Principal Sharon Maeda. “She is the type of person who gets an idea in her head and figures out how to make it work.”

As a Teacher of the Year, Smith is helping choose finalists for this year’s upcoming award. She’s been sorting through candidate applications in recent weeks, and said each time she reads through one, she feels incredibly humbled for being chosen a top teacher last year.

“This makes me realize how many truly great teachers we have here in Orange County,” she said.