This year’s Orange County Teacher of the Year announcements looked a bit different.
Conspicuously missing was the big yellow bus, dubbed the “Prize Patrol,” which has traditionally carried the county superintendent, camera crews, reporters, sponsors and OCDE representatives from school to school to share the good news.
Instead, six exemplary educators found out they’ve been named the 2021 Orange County Teachers of the Year the same way many of us are now virtually connecting — through videoconferencing sessions.
The surprises were no less genuine and the smiles were no less broad as winners were greeted by an online gallery of faces that included County Superintendent Al Mijares, OCDE administrators, colleagues and representatives from SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, the program’s premier sponsor.
From a pool of 58 district-level teachers of the year, 15 were recently named semifinalists, and from that group five were selected to represent the county — along with one community college instructor. Each was notified on Wednesday after being asked to join separate videoconferencing sessions. Click on the video above to watch a highlight reel of their big reveals.
Without further ado, the 2021 Orange County Teachers of the Year are:
- Shelley Romanoff-Andros, Buena Park Junior High School, Buena Park School District
- James (Mickey) Dickson, Northwood High School, Irvine Unified School District
- Laura Gómez, Martin Elementary School, Santa Ana Unified School District
- Allison Goodlander, Barbara Benson Elementary School, Tustin Unified School District
- Emily Quinlan, Saddleback College, South Orange County Community College District
- Shay Reardon, Ada Clegg Elementary School, Westminster School District
As usual, the winners received a special apple trophy from Dr. Mijares and additional prizes from SchoolsFirst, and the K-12 honorees will go on to represent Orange County at the state-level competition. OCDE staff also drove out to each educator’s home to adorn their yards with lawn signs.
The six finalists are expected to be formally honored at a dinner gala at the Disneyland Hotel, where they’ll receive cash awards from the Orange County Teachers of the Year Award Foundation, established by the William, Jeff and Jennifer Gross Family Foundation.
Here’s more about each Teacher of the Year based on their nomination forms.
Shelley Romanoff-Andros, Buena Park Junior High School, Buena Park School District
For Shelley Romanoff-Andros, one of the highlights of her career was having a former student return years later to say, “Mrs. Andros, you never gave us the answers. You made us figure it out on our own.”
At Buena Park Junior High School, Andros teaches seventh- and eighth-grade STEM electives, including robotics, coding and horticulture. She also leads the Femineers program, which seeks to inspire and empower girls with opportunities to explore careers in science, technology, engineering and math. She takes pride in building relationships with her students and helps them take ownership of their learning through collaboration and perseverance.
Andros is positive, energetic and adaptable. She believes in creating safe learning environments that support the whole child, and her approach to grading allows students to make mistakes and resubmit their work if it will help them better grasp the content. Colleagues say inclusion is exemplified in her classroom, where students of all abilities can achieve meaningful success.
“Developing lessons that are open-ended, using a variety of modalities to deliver the content, with the ability to modify and adapt to individual students, is both challenging and necessary,” she said.
Often working into the evening, Andros encourages additional project-based learning through her STEM sailing program, the Academic Pentathlon team and Femineers. Her students also have opportunities to volunteer for beach clean-ups, participate in robotics competitions and work in the campus garden.
“It’s about having access to experiences, authentic learning, and being better prepared to affect change as a community member,” she said.
James (Mickey) Dickson, Northwood High School, Irvine Unified School District
Mickey Dickson began his career at Millikan High School in Long Beach before arriving at Northwood High in 2002. He teaches integrated science and forensic science in grades 9, 11 and 12 and serves as department chair.
Dickson believes in inquiry-based instruction and strives to create experiences that move beyond siloed learning to help students understand connections between subjects. This mindset led Dickson and his Northwood colleagues to create the Forensics Core (FORCE) program, which, he says, represents a community-wide collaboration.
FORCE bundles the disciplines of science, social science and English with three classes — forensic science, forensic psychology, and critical theory and literature. Through their coursework, students are challenged to tackle one essential question: “How does the criminal justice system determine a reliable understanding of truth?”
Participants get the opportunity to interact with law enforcement officials, attorneys, judges, journalists and forensic science experts. The program culminates with a capstone project that has students present their findings to the community.
He even talked the principal into creating a campus “body farm,” using dead chickens to teach students about the decomposition process.
Fellow educators characterize Dickson as a content expert who maintains a nurturing classroom environment, and his focus is on the process rather than points. When lab teams complete an activity, they present their scientific claims on a whiteboard, and classmates are encouraged to question arguments and identify inconsistencies. To help students self-reflect and make connections, Dickson often tasks them with creating concept maps that reveal relationships between ideas.
“Years from now, students may not remember the specific content,” he said, “but they will remember how to struggle, self-assess and modify, to adapt.”
Laura Gómez, Martin Elementary School, Santa Ana Unified School District
Laura Gómez has worked at Martin Elementary School in Santa Ana since 2006 and has taught a full-inclusion third-grade class for the last five years.
Gómez’s classroom has been described as a welcoming place where students feel safe to take risks and be creative. She builds a culture of reading by offering a vibrant library of student-centered books and expanding the selection based on the requests of young readers.
Students learn and practice presentation skills in Gómez’s class through monthly presentations called “Chit Chats,” which become more complex and research-based as the year progresses. In math, she uses hands-on manipulatives and different engagement strategies to help children visualize concepts such as fractions.
Principal Peter Richardson says Gómez is a true scholar of curriculum and a master motivator who helps all students progress, including English learners, GATE students, and students with special needs. “She meets the students where they are and pushes them to progress to their respective next levels,” he said.
As an immigrant and first-generation college graduate, Gómez has sought to build community connections by planning family nights that focus on literacy, math and science. She also plans field trips to area colleges, attends student performances outside of school, develops hands-on science activities for the district’s School Choice Fair, and organizes “Mother’s Day Tea” and “Donuts with Dad” activities.
She has an open-door policy and is committed to acknowledging, educating and empowering the whole child.
“I do not yet have all the answers,” she said, “but for the last 25 years I have made it my business to find out who my students are.”
Allison Goodlander, Barbara Benson Elementary School, Tustin Unified School District
Allison Goodlander began student-teaching in Tustin Unified in 2000 and has taught at Barbara Benson Elementary School for 20 years. She leads a combination class of fourth- and fifth-graders.
Serving a unique community of learners with different abilities and learning styles, Goodlander believes each child has the potential to bring something unique and special to the world. Her favorite classroom moment is when a concept finally clicks and a child has that “aha” moment. Her biggest reward is when parents of former students tell her what a difference she has made in their lives.
“I believe the real shift of my teaching came when I realized that starting with building these relationships and making time for personal connections every day fostered more learning in my classroom,“ she said.
Principal Jackie Christy says Goodlander knows how to make difficult math concepts seem easy, and her students use journals to develop ideas and sharpen their writing skills. But her work goes beyond meeting their academic needs. She takes time to connect with those who may be feeling anxious or uncertain, even as learning is taking place from a distance.
“Through morning greetings, daily check-ins, brain breaks, and teaching self-regulation strategies, she conveys to students that they matter,” Christy said.
Goodlander is involved with the Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO), the district’s Dino Dash fundraiser, Habitat for Humanity, local food banks and her church. She also visits families after school, attends birthday parties and occasionally can be found in the cheering section at student sporting events.
“Each child has the opportunity to feel important, essential and valued in my classroom,” she said.
Emily Quinlan, Saddleback College, South Orange County Community College District
Emily Quinlan has taught law and political science courses at Saddleback College for 14 years, sharing her passion for the legal system, government, social justice and reform. She is deeply invested in the success of her students and brings a real-world, contextualized and holistic approach to meeting their academic and non-academic needs.
Quinlan has been studying, practicing and teaching law her entire adult life. But many of her students have never met a lawyer or had contact with the courts. Some may have had a negative experience with the criminal justice system. Seeking to demystify and educate, she encourages a personal connection with the U.S. Constitution and the law.
Students have more questions than ever about American government and the law, said Quinlan, who leverages up-to-the-minute news stories to shape lessons about legislation, court rulings, Supreme Court appointments, congressional hearings and executive orders. Students are empowered to share their ideas, debate and explore gray areas.
“At this time in our nation’s history, the law is rapidly evolving and my students want and need to know what it all means,” she said.
In 2013, Quinlan developed the Pathway to Law School initiative that helps students chart a course for prestigious law schools. She is active with the Academic Senate and assists with faculty professional development and support. She also brought early voting to Saddleback College by partnering with the Orange County Registrar of Voters.
“I love knowing that in one class, a student’s life was improved in some way because of something they learned,” she said. “It is my hope that they will be able to use their knowledge and be inspired to advocate for themselves or their loved ones.”
Shay Reardon, Ada Clegg Elementary School, Westminster School District
Shay Reardon has taught third grade, a fourth/fifth combo, and fifth grade at Ada Clegg Elementary School since 2015.
Colleagues say she is a gifted teacher and mentor who is willing to share creative ideas for differentiating instruction to reach all learners. With experience as a principal and assistant principal, she has also developed workshops for parents covering a variety of topics, including how to help middle-schoolers with homework, bullying and dealing with social media. This year, she created a staff presentation about research-based Universal Design for Learning (UDL) concepts after attending trainings offered by OCDE.
In the classroom, Reardon strives to create lessons that are student-centered and research-based, leveraging UDL practices, thinking maps, blended learning and other strategies. Clegg Principal John Staggs says she displays a daily enthusiasm for teaching and is always looking for fresh ideas and instructional strategies while embracing new technologies.
“She possesses a personality that captivates children and adults alike and has an exceptional ability to communicate with students, parents and her school community,” Staggs said.
Following a natural disaster that devastated Haiti, Reardon organized a “Hugs for Haiti” campaign that inspired students to create posters and collection bins. She has also organized a Veterans Day assembly and a drive to send Halloween candy to active military personnel serving overseas.
Reardon, who currently teaches third grade, believes teachers must be able to identify students’ social and emotional needs along with their learning needs.
“Each day, I walk into my classroom extremely grateful to be a teacher and realize that it is my responsibility to create a safe place where students feel accepted, loved and challenged creatively and academically,” she said.
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