OCDE makes surprise visits to announce the 2023 Orange County Teachers of the Year

Six of the best and brightest teachers in Orange County experienced disruptions in their lesson plans for very good reasons today. 

Over the span of six hours, Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, along with camera crews, reporters, sponsors and a handful of OCDE representatives on a big yellow school bus visited six different campuses to recognize the 2023 Orange County Teachers of the Year.

Dr. Mijares and school leaders on each site walked into the teachers’ classrooms unannounced, receiving genuine reactions from educators who have taught from their hearts. All six award-winning teachers received a special trophy with a shiny red apple on top. The educators also received a tote bag with prizes from SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, the program’s premier sponsor.

In the fall, the finalists will be formally honored at a dinner gala at the Disneyland Hotel, where they will receive cash awards from the Orange County Teachers of the Year Award Foundation, established by the William, Jeff and Jennifer Gross Family Foundation. The Gross Family has generously awarded more than $4 million to more than 1,600 Orange County teachers since 1992. 

  • 2023 Teachers of the Year
  • 2023 TOTY Sergio Sanabria Reaction to Award
  • Ben Case toty 2023
  • Ben Case 2023 TOTY 2
  • Teacher Tracy Dawson

Here’s a look at this year’s Orange County Teachers of the Year, who will now have an opportunity to compete for state and national honors.

Jill Summerhays, Plavan Elementary School, Fountain Valley School District

Jill Summerhays

Summerhays has served students at every elementary grade level, but her passion is supporting preschoolers with special needs at Plavan Elementary School. She joined the Fountain Valley School District 14 years ago and quickly impressed her colleagues, students and their families. In total, she has been teaching for 21 years.

“Within seconds of walking into Ms. Summerhays’ classroom, children and visitors feel the magic,” FVSD Assistant Superintendent Cathie Abdel said. “It is not just the child-size pirate ship that her father built for her students, or the colorful, inviting learning centers, or the soft music playing in the background that make people want to stay and return; it is Ms. Summerhays.” 

The special education preschool teacher frames her love for teaching around the qualities of an educator she would want for her own child. She believes building a relationship with each student is essential to understanding them and meeting them where they are, so they are able to grow and develop.

“I’m driven by the progress my students make every day and the happiness it brings to their families to see their child make progress in school,” Summerhays shared.

One of her proudest accomplishments is her advocacy for inclusion. She collaborates with other teachers by giving specific examples of how to effectively implement students’ accommodations and modifications in a general education setting in order to set them up for success. Many of her students have successively transitioned to the inclusion classroom and moved on to general education kindergarten classrooms. 

Outside of her role at Plavan, Summerhays commits her time as a home hospital instructor where she supports students with the greatest needs. She is also involved with the Down Syndrome Association of Orange County. 

Sergio Sanabria, Marco Forster Middle School, Capistrano Unified School District

Sergio Sanabria

In 2013, Sanabria was offered a 30-day substitute teaching assignment in an eighth-grade science class at Marco Forster Middle School in the Capistrano Unified School District. He was insecure about the content and unsure about the teaching assignment, but he took the job and decided that, even with the temporary timeframe, he was going to give the students the ultimate experience. That appointment was extended to nine months and then a full-time position teaching sixth- and eighth-graders math. 

The subject can be terrifying and a negative experience for some students, but Sanabria has cracked the code. For him, it involves creating a student-centered environment for learning. 

“I want students to enter my room and feel like their input is just as important as the expertise I provide,” Sanabria said. 

On the first day of each school year, Sanabria makes it a point to get to know what each student is interested in and tries to build a connection. He ties these interests into his lessons and discussions about himself to integrate inclusivity. 

“He is driven to ensure that all students who enter his classroom have access to learning and demonstrate growth in their understanding of all math concepts, as well as what it means to be a person of high character,” Marco Forster Middle School Principal Catherine Thompson said. 

Sanabria uses his bilingual skills to assist Spanish-speaking parents and offers free math support for students even after they leave for high school. 

“The staff and I are better teachers because of Sergio’s dedication to us,” Laura Barnett, an educator of 26 years, shared. 

Dr. Emily Liu, Irvine Valley College, South Orange County Community College District

2023 TOTY Emily Liu

The mission of community college aligns with the core of Dr. Emily Liu’s educational philosophy: Opportunities to learn are open to all, and individuals can thrive when they are validated in an inclusive and supportive community. 

Liu is a tenured associate professor of English and director of the honors program at Irvine Valley College, where she has taught full-time since 2016. 

“The foundation of my teaching philosophy lies in empowering students to become skillful readers, writers, communicators and critical thinkers — and to view themselves as such,” Liu said. 

Liu believes most students typically do not enter her classes with boundless enthusiasm about the subject and instead harbor insecurities about their writing ability or emotional baggage from past experiences in their writing classes. So she makes it a point to get to know every single student. 

“Community college students often encounter educational and familial situations in which doubt is cast on their abilities to succeed in higher education,” English professor Daniel de Roulet said. “Dr. Emily Liu is an example of a teacher who stands in the gap for those students, encouraging them that success is indeed possible and giving them the tools to reach their goals.”

Liu wants her students to know that as a life-long learner, it is okay to make mistakes. She once performed a read-aloud of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s song “Humble.” As she struggled to pronounce the words and comprehend the meaning of the lyrics, she showed her vulnerability. This diminished students’ own fears of not knowing the “right” answer and validated the knowledge and experience that they bring to the classroom. 

“By centering students in their own learning process, Dr. Liu pulls down the barrier of a power hierarchy often found in classrooms,” Kavya Makam, a former student, shared. 

Jamie Morgan, Cerritos Elementary School, Savanna School District

Jamie Morgan

Step inside room 13 at Cerritos Elementary School and you’ll find Morgan and her first-graders. They are a community that is learning to read, write, celebrate one another’s successes and be there when a member is going through a tough time. There’s an area inside her classroom that is called the rainbow table, where students who are struggling to read sit and receive additional support. 

“I have a special place in my heart for this group,” Jamie Morgan, an educator of 15 years, shared. “As someone who struggled to learn to read in first grade, and didn’t really make that reading connection until second grade, I remember the overwhelming feeling of anxiety that caused me.” 

Morgan comforts her students the same way she remembers her own first-grade teacher calmly reassuring her that she will become a better reader with practice.

“She truly understands that children need to feel safe and secure at school in order to meet their potential in academic areas,” Savanna Superintendent Dr. Sue Johnson said. “She works tirelessly to ensure their needs are met.” 

Their community extends to her students’ families, as she forms connections with them so they can be a team working toward the same goals. She’s thankful for the parents and grandparents who volunteer in her classroom; she considers them an extension of her own. 

These connections have grown beyond the Savanna school experience to the point where Morgan will find herself cheering from the bleachers at former students’ high school games. Their community bond doesn’t end after they leave room 13. 

“Above all, I want my students to feel valued, loved and heard. This allows me to meet their educational and emotional needs,” Morgan said. 

Tracy Dawson, Arnold O. Beckman High School, Tustin Unified School District

Tracy Dawson

After 11 years of teaching, Dawson still asks herself the same three questions before school starts. 

How will my students be challenged today? 

Will my students feel safe today? 

How will it feel to be a student in my class today?

“I feel strongly that being an outstanding, impactful teacher needs to start with creating meaningful, supportive, authentic relationships with students,” Dawson, an AVID and science teacher, said.

Dawson once had a student who made some poor decisions and ended up in Orange County Juvenile Hall. They wrote to each other for three years. When it came time for him to graduate from high school within the detention center, the student asked her to be there.

“I was so honored and touched by the words he said about me in his speech at his ceremony, especially when he said I am a person that always believed that he could be better,” Dawson shared. 

She took on the challenge of teaching a new course titled Human Body Systems (HBS) in 2010. It has since become the introduction class to the school’s most successful career technical education pathway course.

“I am not sure that I can express on paper how extraordinary a teacher Ms. Dawson is,” Principal Donnie Rafter said, “There is no teacher I would rather recommend for our teacher of the year.” 

Dawson considers students being excited to attend her classes one of the biggest rewards in teaching. Many of her HBS students tell her they’ve been waiting to take her class since they were in middle school after talking to an older sibling or friend.

“As a teacher, this is an amazing thing to hear; students are not only talking about what they are learning but also about how they feel when they are in your class,” Dawson said.

Ben Case, Northwood High School, Irvine Unified School District 

Ben Case

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life doesn’t always go according to plan. Case and his students in the band and orchestra program at Northwood High School were days away from performing Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” when their year-long project came to a halt in the spring of 2020. 

“The sense of loss for all of us was crushing,” said Case, Northwood’s instrumental music director. “I had to shift my focus. After all, it was about the students and not the music.” 

They quickly pivoted to provide the cathartic release creativity can bring, and devised an instructional unit embedded with student choice. While they mourned the loss of their typical school year, Case could not have imagined the level of thought and personal connection that went into these projects. 

“While our unique paths meander, helping someone find their way means more to me than I can say,” he said. “I love seeing our students succeed, and I am inspired by their resilience when things get rough.” 

Wanting to show his appreciation for his senior students during the 2019-20 school year, Case and his family acknowledged their struggles and celebrated their successes by driving by the homes of his students. He was dressed in full regalia while performing “Pomp and Circumstance” on his saxophone as his children held signs out of the car windows. This reinforces his mantra of focusing on students, not content. 

“For the past 16 years, he has been the heart and soul of not only the arts faculty, but one of the entire Northwood community,” IUSD Director of Arts Education Brad Van Patten said. 

Case was declared one of 25 semifinalists for the Music Educator Award presented by the Grammy Foundation and The Recording Academy in 2015.