Six educators who enlightened, encouraged and uplifted students during one of the most challenging years in a century learned Thursday that they’re the 2022 Orange County Teachers of the Year.
For the second straight spring, the announcements were made virtually through a series of Zoom calls rather than surprise visits to local campuses. But the winners were no less elated to learn they had earned the county’s highest honor for those who have found their calling in the teaching profession.
Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares broke the news and congratulated each of the honorees for their work, noting the emotional toll and added complexities of teaching during a pandemic. He was joined by an online gallery of OCDE administrators, school colleagues and representatives from SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, the program’s premier sponsor.
Selections were made from a pool of 58 teachers who had previously won district-level honors. From that group, an OCDE-led panel narrowed the field to 15 semifinalists, and five were picked to represent Orange County following a final round of interviews. One superstar community college instructor was also selected.
The 2022 Orange County Teachers of the Year are:
- Jodi Balma, Fullerton College, North Orange County Community College District
- Ann Berger, Esencia School, Capistrano Unified School District
- Richard Berman, Otto A. Fischer School, Orange County Department of Education
- Alondra Diaz, Ralph A. Gates Elementary School, Saddleback Valley Unified School District
- Sovantevy “Sovey” Long-Latteri, La Sierra High School, Fullerton Joint Union High School District
- Ingred Shine, Villa Park High School, Orange Unified School District
Along with a special apple trophy and additional prizes from SchoolsFirst, the six finalists will each receive cash awards from the Orange County Teachers of the Year Award Foundation established by the William, Jeff and Jennifer Gross Family Foundation, and they are set to be formally honored next year at a dinner gala at the Disneyland Hotel.
And there could be even more in store. The five K-12 honorees are also eligible to be considered for California Teacher of the Year recognition — and perhaps even national honors.
In the meantime, here’s some background on the Teachers of the Year from their nomination forms.
Jodi Balma, Fullerton College, North Orange County Community College District
Jodi Balma has taught political science at Fullerton College for more than 20 years. Students say she has a gift for making others feel heard and validated, and her classes help them realize how their lives are impacted by the choices others are making, particularly at the local level.
American government is typically required coursework, but Balma welcomes the challenge of engaging her students in politics, using simulations, classroom debates and campaign memos to supplement conventional lectures and materials.
“I have absolutely no interest in teaching my students what to think about politics,” she says. “I want to teach them how to think about politics in a critical, analytical manner regardless of their political party or ideology.”
She appreciates that politics is never static, and that was certainly on display in 2020. As schools pivoted to online learning, Balma developed real-time lessons on pandemic politics and launched her own podcast, “A Slice of Orange,” to cover local and state races and ballot measures.
Embracing the role of advocate and mentor, Balma serves in a number of leadership positions, including coordinator of Fullerton College’s Honors Program, internship director of the Political Science department and faculty representative on hiring committees.
In 2019, she was on hand as the Westminster School District re-dedicated its administrative headquarters in honor of Sylvia Mendez and her family, who successfully fought school segregation in the 1940s. One of Balma’s first students, Jamison Power, was a trustee on the school board that approved the marquee change.
“As I watched him invite my dear friend, Sylvia Mendez, to the stage to cut the ribbon, I beamed with pride seeing my lessons come full circle,” she says.
Ann Berger, Esencia School, Capistrano Unified School District
Ann Berger teaches third grade at Esencia, which serves preschool through grade eight. She has worked in the Capistrano Unified School District since 1998.
Berger believes all children must have a safe and engaging educational environment where they can share ideas, take risks and grow. Along with hands-on, minds-on activities, her students are presented with choices and encouraged to let their curiosity direct their learning.
One program lets students run her classroom like a government. Student-candidates create election materials, hang posters and give speeches before an election picks a class president, a vice president and members of Congress, who serve one-trimester terms. Other students can help shape policies through other jobs — such as the Internal Department of Homework Services.
“Not only are the students learning hands-on about how governments are run and the important things that a government does, but they are also learning to work together, solve problems and to take ownership of the classroom,” she says.
Her classes have also participated in charitable service-learning events, held fundraisers and pursued environmentally friendly practices on campus.
Last year, when Capistrano needed to quickly develop an online elementary curriculum during the pandemic, colleagues say Berger emerged as a driving force, uniting teacher-leaders to build a successful learning management system. As a “Canvas Ambassador,” she helped train more than 800 elementary teachers and provided ongoing support, one administrator said.
Committed to student-centered teaching, Berger tries to understand how her students think, and she uses that mindset to differentiate instruction for all learners.
“One of the greatest rewards of teaching is making the difference in the life of a child,” she says.
Richard Berman, Otto A. Fischer School, Orange County Department of Education
For nearly 25 years, Berman has taught at Otto A. Fischer School, which serves incarcerated students at Orange County Juvenile Hall. The program is part of OCDE’s alternative education program, or ACCESS.
Berman’s students have faced extreme challenges, and many lack healthy coping skills or have a history of violence or self-harm. While maintaining safety and security as a priority, Berman sets a foundation for learning and growth by teaching effective communication and interpersonal skills.
“All the while it is important that I make each student feel important and respected in order for them to give me a chance to teach,” he says. “For my particular population of students, respect is very honored but hardly given.”
Berman works collaboratively with Orange County’s Probation and Social Services departments to expand opportunities, organizing field trips to museums, universities, amusement parks and theatrical performances. He also helped establish Fischer’s first school site council to give students and families a voice, and he is a key contributor to California’s annual Safe Schools Conference, teaching restorative practices and conflict resolution.
When the pandemic struck, Fischer became one of the first correctional schools in California to launch a distance learning model. Meanwhile, Berman and his students found a meaningful way to help others.
Through Operation Study Hall, students worked with their woodshop teacher and probation staff to build wooden desks and chairs for low-income families to use during their own remote learning. The project included everything from ordering supplies to manufacturing and setting up deliveries.
Says Berman, “There are no reunions. There are no yearbooks. There are no grad nights. So our small successes are huge celebrations.”
Alondra Diaz, Ralph A. Gates Elementary School, Saddleback Valley Unified School District
Alondra Diaz has been a third-grade dual immersion teacher at Gates Elementary School since 2017 and an educator for 14 years. Colleagues say she strives to discover the potential in everyone she works with, from students to beginning teachers.
Diaz grew up in Santa Ana as a bilingual student and learned first-hand the power of education. Homelessness and other childhood traumas posed obstacles, but school was her North Star.
“Fortunately, I had amazing teachers who inspired me along the way and believed in me, even when I didn’t,” she says.
Diaz pays it forward by chatting individually with her own students, making eye contact, smiling and letting them know she is happy to learn with them. They also connect through Google Forms to share what’s on their minds, organize their thoughts and set personal goals.
From there, bodies and minds are sharpened with student-led yoga sessions. As a fitness instructor, Diaz says she has a passion for movement and helped convene a group of parents, colleagues and community members who combine exercise and mindfulness.
In her classroom, language is embedded in every content area using a variety of strategies. Students are encouraged to discuss a daily topic, ranging from a hypothetical question to a conversation about a historical figure.
Her students use self-regulating tools including breathing exercises and give one another feedback with positive affirmations. Diaz ends each day with a moment to reflect on their learning goals — and to celebrate.
“It is magical to see students grow confident as learners and community members,” she says. “They beam with pride every time they achieve a goal, and this is incredibly rewarding.”
Sovey Long-Latteri, La Sierra High School, Fullerton Joint Union High School District
For the last eight years, Sovantevy “Sovey” Long-Latteri has taught in the Adult Transition Program at La Sierra High School, where she also serves as instructional leader and coordinator of an assigned team of paraprofessionals.
Most of her students are nonverbal with severe disabilities, and many must adhere to a medication, feeding and restroom schedule. But Long-Latteri maintains she is not just there to tend to basic needs; she is there to help them learn and grow.
“I strive to showcase that all students possess the capacity to learn and succeed, and that they can achieve anything with the right mindset,” she says.
Her team employs visual aids to help students ages 18 to 22 make connections. They also use hands-on projects to practice new skills, and they create authentic experiences to introduce them to the world outside. Other lessons help students identify and understand their feelings and emotions.
When her program was unable to find local businesses to help students practice job skills, Long-Latteri created her own “business,” fulfilling Starbucks orders for school staff. She has also established clubs and hosted inclusive Zoom sing-a-longs to keep students, families and community members connected during the pandemic.
Long-Latteri credits her work ethic to her parents, who escaped the killing fields of Cambodia before arriving in the United States with very little money in 1979. While she initially wanted to be a radio personality, her family’s sacrifices molded her into an educator who prioritizes accountability, passion and student-centered teaching.
“Everyone can learn, given the chance,” she says. “This mindset is my greatest contribution to education.”
Ingred Shine, Villa Park High School, Orange Unified School District
Ingred Shine has taught photography and art for 18 years at Villa Park High School. She considers the relationships built over that span her most significant contribution.
“One of the advantages of teaching at the same site for 18 years is that I have been able to teach thousands of students from the same community and build a bond with families and students as they come through the school,” she says.
Students quickly discover that Mrs. Shine’s classroom is an exciting place to be. She’s created a collaborative and inclusive space where music is often played and materials and ideas are shared. For Shine, it’s about creating a community.
Students are taught not to strive for perfection, but to pursue creativity and to challenge their own perceptions of beauty. They receive written and verbal lessons as well as physical demonstrations, and Shine records hands-on activities to reinforce multiple intelligences. Students can retake tests, resubmit projects and demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways.
Shine works with parent and community groups to procure school equipment, and she’s set up internships with local photography studios and helped secure discounts for students.
Above all, she believes students need to be engaged and challenged daily. Photography students might be shooting a project, editing digital images or using the studio to learn about lighting. Art students might be critiquing artwork, sketching ideas or organizing their portfolios. Their paces may vary, but no student is idle.
“My class is one I would have loved to take when I was a high school student,” she says, “and that is why I design my classroom around this philosophy.”
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