Surprise! OCDE announces the 2020 Orange County Teachers of the Year

Who are the 2020 Orange County Teachers of the Year?

You’re about to find out. And so are they.

apple trophy in front of a busOver the next several hours, six local educators will learn they’ve been selected to receive the county’s top honor for teachers during surprise visits from Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares.

A big yellow school bus will transport Dr. Mijares to each stop, along with camera crews, reporters, sponsors and a handful of OCDE representatives.

The OCDE Newsroom will also be along for the ride, so be sure to hit “refresh” on this page for updates and live video announcements. Or “like” OCDE’s Facebook page and follow us there.

All six Orange County Teachers of the Year will receive a special trophy from Dr. Mijares and 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’ll receive cash awards from the Orange County Teachers of the Year Award Foundation, established by the William, Jeff and Jennifer Gross Family Foundation.

Follow the announcements live on this post, or on social media today using hashtags #OCTeachersoftheYear #OCTOY2020.

Gavin Ehlers, Marina High School, Huntington Beach Union High School District

Ehlers has spent his entire career teaching science at Marina High School, joining the staff in 2007-08. He’s taught AP biology for the last eight years and accelerated biology for six years while serving as the science department coordinator. He has also taught chemistry, biology and life science at Marina.

With Ehlers at the helm, AP biology enrollment has spiked from 35 students to more than 100, and he has never had a pass rate under 80 percent. Yet he takes the most pride in having a 100 percent participation rate on the College Board’s AP exam every year he’s taught the course.

In a lively classroom packed with items contributed by students, Ehlers employs storytelling to connect on a personal level, he seeks feedback, and he encourages his class to take ownership of their learning. A debate-style forum even allows students to defend their responses on tests and quizzes.

“Most students say they learn more on these days than any other through having the opportunity to display their understanding of the content while identifying and clarifying misconceptions,” he says.

Outside the classroom, Ehlers attends numerous Marina High events, leads ecological trips to Costa Rica, arranges tours to local scientific facilities, organizes blood drives and other community events, and visits local middle schools to talk to parents and students about transitioning to high school.

“I have never met a teacher, not even a professor, that loves their job as much as Mr. Ehlers loves his,” said a former student. “He teaches with passion, courage and energy that just goes unmatched.”

Melinda Moen, Western High School, Anaheim Union High School District

Moen has taught art at Western High for the past 14 years. Throughout her career, she has worked to help students understand that artistic talent isn’t just something someone is born with, but also a skill one can learn. And a canvas doesn’t just have to be a clean, white frame in front of them, but it can also be the world around them.

At Western high, her students regularly use the campus itself as their canvas. They often transform bland walls into colorful murals. One recent project, the “Post-it Note Art Show,” involved students creating images on the paper squares and plastering them all over the school. More than 450 students participated, converting Western High into a one-of-a-kind art gallery.

As part of the school’s annual chalk art event, her students took to black tops and sidewalks to draw projects that celebrate diversity by showcasing art from different cultures.

Moen regularly encourages students to use their artwork to celebrate their individualism, dreams and passions. She often sees students who appear shy, lonely or disconnected find their voice and come alive through their artwork.

The teacher has also learned to incorporate social media into art education. She often spotlights her student’s work on Instagram. In 2017, Art of Education’s online magazine listed her as “Best Teacher to Follow on Instagram.

“A reason her class is so engaging is because it focuses on connecting with students,” said Joseph Carmona, Anaheim Union’s director of special programs.

“One of her strongest characteristics is that she focuses on social justice and civic engagement. Her classroom challenges students to reflect about issues they face in the community and society as a whole,” he said.

Melissa Brennan, Maxwell Elementary School, Magnolia School District

Brennan, who started with the Magnolia School District in 2003, works as a special day class teacher at Maxwell Elementary School, serving students in transitional kindergarten through first grade.

Championing social-emotional learning and inclusion, she has mainstreamed hundreds of students in general education classrooms and helped a number of them transition out of special education services.

“When students are taught alongside each other regardless of ability level, amazing things happen,” she said. “They are able to recognize and appreciate the things they have in common such as loving ‘Pete the Cat’ books, while at the same time respecting each other’s differences, such as having a different way of speaking, walking or even thinking.”

Brennan knows first-hand that every child can learn and achieve. But, she says, only when children feel cared for can they experience academic and social success.

She recalls one student who, in addition to being diagnosed with autism, was physically and verbally abusive as a preschooler. Brennan discovered he was also brilliant, so she challenged him in reading, writing and math, and she taught him the right way to receive attention using praise and consistent classroom management. Two years later, he is the top reader in his general education first-grade class.

In addition to her classroom work, Brennan serves as Talent Show coordinator and Red Ribbon Week chair, and she’s a member of the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) team.

“Given all her accomplishments, you would never hear it from her,” said Cathery Yeh, assistant professor of teacher education at Chapman University. “She puts her students in the limelight and reminds us daily how talented, capable and creative all students are.”

Aline Gregorio, Associate Professor of Geography at Fullerton College

Gregorio’s goal has always been to help her students better understand the world in which they live. In her roll teaching geography at Fullerton College for the past three years, she has challenged students with real-world lessons that study global poverty, migration, food and housing insecurity, and climate change.

Gregorio, a native of Brazil, said she uses her geography courses to convey to students how the lives of people across the world are shaped by their own unique experiences. Her classes include guest speakers, film screenings and field research aimed at getting students out of their comfort zones.

Her students are encouraged to think critically by giving oral presentation that focus on topics such as the lack of access to clean water in some regions, the root causes of migration, and the ongoing depletion of natural resources.

On campus, Gregorio is a leading voice for environmental and social initiatives that are focused on encouraging young adults to become more active in tackling issues our society faces today, her students have said. She has helped organize Fullerton College’s annual Earth Day Symposium, and she urges students to participate in coastal clean-up events.

“In her short tenure at Fullerton College, Professor Gregorio’s influence has been remarkable and impactful to students and the campus community alike,” said Jorge Gamboa, the college’s dean of social sciences. “Her lessons help students gain a greater understanding of how policies impact access to critical resources for impoverished and underserved communities.”

De’Anna Moore, Crescent Elementary School, Orange Unified School District

Moore has taught for 16 years at various grade levels at Crescent Elementary, and has been a fourth-grade teacher since 2015. Moore has always believed that part of her role as an educator is to help students become responsible citizens. Academics are important, but so is social-emotional growth. That’s why she works to instill in her students a sense of moral obligation to make the world a better place. And it starts in her classroom.

Each day she encourages her students to find classmates who might need a little extra help with their schoolwork, a hand organizing their desk, or who could use some cheering up to brighten their day. Additionally, students regularly are asked to volunteer outside the classroom.

They work with a nearby second-grade class as “reading buddies” for the younger students. Moore also leads them in fundraising efforts such as Hats Off for Cancer and the Pennies for Patients drive benefiting the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Moore says she relies on her previous military experience in the U.S. Army Reserve to help her become a more effective leader in the classroom. She works each day to pass on these skills to her students, teaching them the importance of effective communication, critical thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration and other valuable skills.

“Mrs. Moore serves as a model for her students that we are lifelong learners and should work hard to be the best that we can be,” said Crescent Principal Shele Tamaki. “She constantly encourages her students to help others, and is well known for giving of her own time before and after school.”

Mandy Kelly, Trabuco Mesa Elementary School, Saddleback Valley Unified School District

Kelly has taught sixth grade at Trabuco Mesa Elementary School since 2016. She originally joined the staff as a kindergarten teacher in 2013 and served as a fourth-grade teacher from 2014 through 2016.

A lifelong learner, Kelly continuously seeks out opportunities for professional development in such areas as technology, engagement and project-based learning. She also leads training sessions and participates in numerous summer committees, helping design curriculum focused on math development, English language arts sequencing, engagement strategies, Next Generation Science Standards and other subjects.

Embracing new concepts for teaching and learning, Kelly has pursued virtual reality headsets and flexible seating for students. Yet she views relationship-building as foundational to her work.

“We share stories about our lives, show pictures of our families, and share our goals, fears and aspirations,” she says. “It is not referred to as my classroom, but our classroom.”

That kind of empowerment was central to her students turning a kindness campaign into a global movement. Kelly and her class of “SAKtivists” — the first three letters stand for “Student Acts of Kindness” —  issue weekly video challenges that have been accepted by more than 150 classes in dozens of states and a handful of countries.

“In my opinion, Mrs. Kelly is the quintessential 21st-century teacher,” said colleague Kathy Adair, who teaches fourth-graders at Trabuco Mesa. “She represents the best of us as we seek new ways to use technological resources and brain-based research to engage children in the learning process.”