California Teachers of the Year. From left: Rebecca Mieliwocki, Tom Collett, Shari Ann Herout, Ken LaVigne, Florence Avognon.
In a time of excessive cuts and dwindling resources, the 2012 California Teachers of the Year find success and recognition in their approach to teaching.
“This honor is afforded to teachers who have demonstrated a special ability to connect with their students, a zest for the classroom, a genuine passion for an occupation that is so demanding yet oh so rewarding, as these five talented individuals will attest,” explained Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
The five teachers to receive this year’s honor are:
Rebecca Mieliwocki, Seventh-Grade English, Luther Burbank Middle School
Burbank Teachers Association
Mieliwocki has been teaching for 13 years, including nine years at Burbank Middle School, where she teaches general education and Gifted and Talented Education classes. She is faculty chair and serves on the school leadership team. Her lessons are infused with a wide array of technical tools that, as her principal says, “brings lessons to life.” Mieliwocki will go on to represent California in the National Teacher of the Year program this spring.
Mieliwocki: “If I accomplish anything with my students, I am proud to say, it’s that when they leave my classroom, they are better people than when they walked through my door.”
Superintendent Torlakson: “Mrs. Mieliwocki is an innovative, creative teacher with boundless energy and an enthusiastic spirit that spreads through each class and each student. Her phenomenal approach toward teaching and her unshakable faith in the potential of her students, led me to nominate her for the national Teacher of the Year title.”
Florence Avognon, High School Reading/Reading Intervention, The Phoenix Academy
Los Angeles County Education Association
Avognon has been teaching for 18 years, including nine years at Central Juvenile Hall, a detention facility for students going through the court system. She teaches high school English and history. Due to budget cuts, Avognon was transferred in September to another court school, The Phoenix Academy, a residential treatment program for adolescent substance abusers, where she continues to teach high school.
Avognon: Part of her effectiveness as a teacher and mentor is to remind each new class of students that youth is fleeting. “I share with them that they were children longer than they will be teens, and that what they do for these brief six years can dictate what happens for the next 60 years of their lives.”
Superintendent Torlakson: “Ms. Avognon says teachers are simply partners for a better tomorrow. Such passionate, skilled, and dynamic teachers are able to take troubled and struggling young people and direct them to a brighter tomorrow, a more promising future.”
Tom Collett, Eighth-Grade Science, Newark Junior High School
Newark Teachers Association
Collett taught earth science for 17 years at Newark Memorial High School. The 2010-11 school year was his first at Newark Junior High School, where he currently teaches eighth grade science. An eclectic mix of magician and scientist, Collett keeps his students actively engaged through a treasure trove of strategies that include hands-on learning and the use of new educational technology, like a student response system where responses to questions are sent directly to his computer.
Collett: “Students need to feel connected to their teacher, which makes them brave, enthusiastic, and eager to learn.”
Superintendent Torlakson: “Tom is a wonderfully effective teacher who employs a wide array of teaching techniques tailored to increase student motivation, achievement, and engagement. I appreciate his remarkable ability to prepare students for an increasingly competitive, scientific world.”
Shari Ann Herout, Kindergarten and RtI, Foxboro Elementary School
Travis Unified Teachers Association
Herout has been teaching for 15 years, three of which have been at Foxboro Elementary School, where she teaches kindergarten and provides Response to Intervention instruction. (RtI is a process that schools can use to help children who are struggling academically or behaviorally.) Each school day, her young children enter her world with a sense of wonder. They are each greeted personally with a handshake or elbow bump, and they instantly know they are safe in a classroom where “we make room for everyone to shine.”
Herout: “Once a child gets a taste of success, failure is no longer a measure of worth — strengths and successes are that measure, and weaknesses are simply skills to be worked on.”
Superintendent Torlakson: “Mrs. Herout sees teaching as more than a job. She teaches with a multiage, one-room schoolhouse philosophy that empowers her students to seek knowledge with passion. She knows of the obstacles that face many children, yet she helps them work through them so success can be achieved and savored.”
Ken LaVigne, Grades 10-12 OASIS and English, La Serna High School
Whittier Secondary Education Association
LaVigne has been a teacher and football coach for 27 years, the last 21 of which have been spent teaching English at La Serna High School. Within days of retiring from coaching in 2006, he was asked to help develop a program for the school’s most at-risk students. He and Principal Martin Plourde created Organized Academic Support in School (OASIS) with amazing results. The average GPA of the inaugural class upon entering the program was 0.93. A year later, the average GPA increased to 2.28. The first graduating class totaled a dozen students; last school year, the number doubled.
LaVigne: “My job is to determine the reasons for the lack of effort, anger, and defiance. Loneliness and desperation cut deeply into the spirit of a child. I am a medic. I have to first stop the bleeding, and then get to the business of healing.”
Superintendent Torlakson: “Mr. LaVigne brings to the classroom a unique blend of personal and professional commitment. He is able to break through the anger, the hopelessness that many of his students feel. As a teacher, an advocate, a watchdog, a cheerleader, he helps them find a reason to excel and sticks with them until they do.”