Six educators received a welcome surprise in their classrooms Thursday as they found out they were selected as 2024 Orange County Teacher of the Year finalists.
Camera crews, sponsors, reporters and OCDE representatives made their way to OC campuses via a big yellow school bus to congratulate each teacher along with their students, colleagues and loved ones. Each finalists’ reaction to the special recognition was captured in a video produced by OCDE’s Media Services team.
Finalists were selected from a pool of 62 district-level honorees following a formal review and multiple interviews conducted by a panel of educators and community members.
In addition to this distinction, each teacher received a special award for their achievements and a tote bag with prizes from SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, the program’s premier sponsor.
On Nov. 6, they will be formally honored at a dinner gala at the Disneyland Hotel, where each finalist will receive cash awards from the Orange County Teachers of the Year Award Foundation, established by the William, Jeff and Jennifer Gross Family Foundation.
Additionally, the Orange County finalists will have the opportunity to apply for the California Teachers of the Year program in August.
Without further ado, here’s an introduction to the 2024 Orange County Teachers of the Year based on their nomination submissions.
Laura Blackie, San Joaquin Elementary School, Saddleback Valley Unified School District
In her own words, Laura Blackie believes an excellent teacher is one who leaves a lasting impact on their students.
Blackie currently teaches fourth-grade students at San Joaquin Elementary School in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. She has 18 years of service under her belt.
The teacher recalls an assignment early in her career where she asked her class to write a paragraph about their dreams. She shared her personal dream of becoming fluent in Spanish.
“I’ll never forget the earnest look in one of my student’s eyes as she asked, ‘Really, Mrs. Blackie?,’” said the teacher. “It was at that moment that I promised her I would. After that, I immersed myself in Spanish until I reached my goal of Spanish fluency and earned my Bilingual, Cross-Cultural, Language and Academic Development certificate.”
With more multilingual learners enrolling into the district, the longtime educator sees an increased need for bridging the achievement gap for these students and aims to be part of the effort to do so. Blackie uses her knowledge of the Spanish language to connect with students and to build connections between Spanish and English.
In Oct. 2019, the Orange County Department of Education recognized Blackie with the Language Learner Award for being a champion for the academic and social success of language learners.
“I am committed to helping every student in my class not only grow in their learning, but experience this joy of learning and want to become lifelong learners,” said Blackie.
Vivian Chang, Red Hill Elementary School, Tustin Unified School District
“Every child has a story” are words that Red Hill Elementary School teacher Vivian Chang lives by as an educator. With 17 years dedicated to the profession, she knows that behind every child’s success, struggle, behavior or emotion is a life story.
“I once was also a child that had a story that others did not understand,” Chang said. “I knew I had the potential to succeed but was weighed down heavily by the stress of my family’s hardships.”
At the age of 11, Chang faced her own struggles after moving to Korea with her mother and moving back to the United States on her own two years later. During those times of adversity, she found refuge in a teacher who changed her life by taking just a couple extra minutes each day to connect with her.
“He did not just see me as a student but as a child who needed opportunities and a connection,” she said.
Today, she continues to model that level of empathy for her fifth-grade class. Students’ needs are at the forefront of her teaching, and developing the “whole child” is her top priority.
“I strive to provide instruction that balances rigorous academic standards and social-emotional development while teaching children to become scholars and citizens,” Chang said.
Along with her role in the classroom, Chang coached the Tustin Unified School District robotics program for six years after introducing the program at her campus. She is currently serving as co-director of the Red Hill Performing Arts.
Kelli Elliott, Orange Coast College, Coast Community College District
As a biology and environmental science professor at Orange Coast College, Kelli Elliott is dedicated to creating immersive and memorable classroom experiences for her students.
With a focus on weaving storytelling and personal experiences into her lectures, Elliott, an educator of 19 years, strives to make complex concepts more accessible and engaging. She also makes sure to create opportunities for students to discuss concepts with one another and checks in with them throughout the lesson to ensure they comprehend the material.
“Finding time for these discussions can be challenging when considering the extensive content that needs to be covered in a biology major’s course outline of record,” Elliott said. “I feel that they provide critical formative assessments and are an important aspect of learning that is more meaningful than direct instruction alone.”
The professor feels guided by this quote, attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
“This idea is a core belief of my teaching and embodies one of the greatest rewards I find in teaching: getting to know my students both as learners and as individuals,” Elliott said. “I care deeply about my students and want them to feel that they are respected.”
Each year, Elliott facilitates field biological sciences experiences for students. She advocates for purchasing equipment and constantly searches for funding opportunities to keep costs low so all of her students are able to have experiences beyond the classroom.
Francisco Sandoval, Orangethorpe Elementary School, Fullerton School District
In Francisco Sandoval’s sixth-grade class at Orangethorpe Elementary School, a typical day starts with individual check-ins with each student to ensure they are doing well in the classroom and at home.
Through this practice of giving his students the opportunity to decompress and confide in one another, Sandoval has been able to turn difficult situations in his classroom into positive interactions.
Sandoval began his teaching career 10 years ago in the Fullerton School District. He says his greatest reward in his role is walking through the school halls at Orangethorpe and being greeted by so many students, even those he has not taught.
The former kindergarten teacher has made it his goal to keep his lessons engaging and adaptable to the students’ needs on any given day. He often pictures himself in their shoes and asks, “If I were a sixth-grader, what would I prefer?”
With the belief that every student possesses a unique set of strengths, Sandoval figures out ways to incorporate their different abilities when planning his lessons in order to help his students recognize their gifts.
“If students believe in their teacher, feel accepted and loved by the teacher and peers, and are given opportunities to succeed through careful planning,” Sandoval said, “students will begin to see their strengths and thrive in many areas.”
In addition to serving as sixth-grade lead teacher, he has helped to provide lunchtime and after-school activities for the students by forming soccer, basketball, drones, e-sports and chess clubs on campus.
Matthew Smith, Red Hill Lutheran School
Matthew Smith serves in many roles at Red Hill Lutheran School outside of his seventh- and eighth-grade math classrooms, including flight and space instructor, school site math coach and robotics instructor.
With 14 years of experience as a teacher, Smith has built his work around identifying the needs of students and designing a solution to meet those needs. He has created a student robotics program, designed an orientation night for parents, organized a “buddy” program for students, launched a middle school summer camp and implemented a math coaching program in the nine years he has taught at Red Hill.
Smith makes an effort to show that he values his students’ relationships, interests and passions outside of school by regularly attending dance recitals, sporting events and graduations. He has had the opportunity to forge connections with his students through his role as a local soccer coach for his three daughters.
After giving a struggling student the opportunity to show off his talents at an extracurricular event, Smith received a kind response from the parent for valuing the different gifts in each child and teaching to their individual learning styles to draw out their strengths.
While exploring complex subjects like aerodynamics and Newton’s laws of motion in his elective courses, the math instructor designs his classes to be collaborative with authentic learning opportunities for students.
By providing students with opportunities to learn through different experiences and problems, he hopes to help them develop a love for learning that “transcends the traditional classroom curriculum.”
“The ultimate mark of a good teacher to me is one who knows that no matter how
good today’s lesson was, how impactful the interaction, how many students showed up
on Zoom, how great the test scores showed and how bright the lightbulb moments were,” Smith said, “tomorrow can always be an improvement upon today’s work.”
Leslie Whitaker, Esencia K-8 School, Capistrano Unified School District
Leslie Whitaker became a teacher with a priority in mind — to design a different experience for her students than what she had as a child.
By encouraging her students to value their work, respect others’ points of view and strive to be their best, she has witnessed her students become confident in sharing their ideas and feel more comfortable in the classroom.
For the past five years, Whitaker has taught third grade at Esencia K-8 School in the Capistrano Unified School District. In addition to teaching, she leads the planning and leadership teams at Esencia while serving as a grade-level lead and teacher induction mentor.
In her third-grade classroom, Whitaker uses the technique of Cognitively Guided Instruction to help students overcome the challenges they face while learning. She recalls the time a student started to cry after making a mistake while sharing with the class. In that moment, Whitaker chose to show the student how we learn from our mistakes.
“Together as a class, we examined what was confusing, figured out how to look at the problem from a new perspective, and heralded the student as a hero who elicited this complex idea for us to explore,” Whitaker said. “What could have been self-defeat and embarrassment transformed into a crucial moment within teaching and a critical learning moment for the whole class.”
Instilling the values of being a responsible citizen and taking care of the environment through guest speaker interviews and philanthropic assignments helps Whitaker teach her students about the impacts they can have on their peers and their community.
“All students enter the classroom with valid ideas,” Whitaker said. “My job is to understand them and provide learning experiences for them to build upon their foundations.”
Vicky Nguyen also contributed to this article.