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2017 Teachers of the Year: Great Exppectations

California Teachers of the Year 2017. From left to right, Shaun Bunn, Corrie Traynor, Jenny Chien, Isela Lieber

Great teachers not only help students learn 21st century skills, but also inspire young people in multiple ways. It could be with encouraging words, or challenging work that sparks creativity and critical thinking. When we asked several of the 2017 California Teachers of the Year their thoughts about teaching, a few other qualities stood out: Steadfast belief in individual ability and growth, and boundless empathy — often acquired through their own life stories.

Jenny Chien

Vista Teachers Association, @ChienforSTEM K-5 STEM teacher

“Start with empathy. What is a problem to help with or solve? Students are incredibly creative and can offer unique ideas.”

Chien teaches fourth-grade broadcast journalism and runs a flexible learning space called the Design, Research, Engineering, Art, Mathematics and Science (DREAMS) Lab, where students learn to code and engage in design challenges.

Her parents owned a business, and as a child, she would often assist with basic finances.She believes this helped her excel in math at school. But she understood that other students needed time to process math concepts. “This experience grounds my passion for making sure that education is personalized for each child,” she says, “so that academic paths are based on unique needs and focused on using strengths to address areas of growth.”

Her goal with the DREAMS Lab: My goal is to create a collaborative space for students to think critically, tap into their interests, foster their creativity and discover their passion. For example, in a fourth-grade game design challenge, students use their own interests and experiences to inspire their team to create an animated game. You see students who may not typically thrive in a traditional classroom utilize their strengths and take the lead.

How educators can replicate the lab: Start with empathy. What is a problem to help with or solve? Then, gather Maker materials such as toilet paper rolls, cardboard and masking tape to design and build initial prototypes to address that problem. It could be as simple as a door being able to stay open. Students are incredibly creative and can offer unique ideas. They will start to put themselves in the situation of the needs of the problem. This process, the design thinking cycle, brings the compassionate perspective to engineering.

Helping students create and produce a newscast: Broadcast journalism is about storytelling. It’s important to talk to students about credibility in sources, especially with fake news trending. Digital citizenship is also a continuous discussion. The most important piece is to help students be curious about the world and be able to research that curiosity and tell the story in a way that engages your targeted audience.


Corrie Traynor

Dry Creek Teachers Association Fifth-grade multisubject teacher

“When we teach children that mistakes are a part of the learning process, they learn how to problem-solve and never give up.”

Every year, Traynor shares her story of growing up with dyslexia and severe reading disability with her students. “This lets them understand that I truly understand what they are going through when they struggle,” she says. Her underlying message: “My students know they can all be successful if they work hard and persevere, and I will not give up on them.”

Instilling perseverance: A teacher needs to gain students’ trust. I have found that once my students know and trust me, they will work harder and persevere through very difficult tasks and concepts. My classroom is a safe place where students can learn and grow as a community. A kid who does not feel safe and valued will struggle to learn.

The value of mistakes: I find students are motivated with praise for what they have specifically accomplished, not by false praise. We celebrate mistakes and learn how mistakes help us to “grow brain.” When we teach children that mistakes are a part of the learning process, they learn how to problem-solve and never give up.

Teaching students with learning challenges: We must believe that all children can be successful with our support, and always keep our expectations high. We need to teach each individual child the way that they need to be taught. It is at times a daunting task, but we cannot give up on those who need us the most.

Advice to teachers who may be hitting a wall: Do not be afraid or too proud to ask for help. I could not do my job without my supportive grade-level, schoolwide and district PLC teams. Find a coach/mentor to help work through your struggles. Find what gives you strength to help you through the good and difficult times. I’ve found that reading current educational research or professional development helps me refocus on why I do what I do each year. Take care of yourself and not just everyone else.


Shaun Bunn

Romoland Teachers Association Eighth-grade math teacher

“Don’t give up. I promise you that everything will get easier, and the hard work is worth the rewards that you will receive.”

Every year, Bunn returns to Cambodia, where he helps feed children — many of them off the streets. He and his family dodged bullets and land mines while fleeing the country’s civil war. They spent several years in a Thai refugee camp before settling in the U.S. Bunn grew up in poverty as an English learner.

He knows the power of personal stories, and weaves them into class time. Once a month his students have “community circle time,” where they can discuss anything, including personal problems at home and school, or what’s happening in the community. Bunn shares some of his own experiences as a way to engage and connect with his class.

Being authentic: Be true to who you are. The students will get it right away if you’re not real. Be true but firm. Students will appreciate you, because most of our students need stability. Some do not have that guidance at home.

Advice to new educators as an induction coach: For the first two years in your career, you will work harder than you ever will, but once you get the management down and know what is expected of you, you will do just fine. Don’t give up. If this is truly your calling, just continue to go with it. I promise you that everything will get easier, and the hard work is worth the rewards that you will receive.

What he learned as a new educator: I thought teaching was easy — as long as I knew the content, standing and delivering the content would be a piece of cake. But teaching is one of the most difficult jobs out there, because you shape the world on a daily basis. It is also one of the most rewarding jobs. You get to turn young minds into future doctors, lawyers, even teachers.

How to build in students a love of math: Find different ways to help students understand math. Our students are our unknown variables: To understand them we must get to know them, peel off their layers one by one. Once you build that trust with your students, learning will naturally happen. Math will become enjoyable.


Isela Lieber

United Teachers Los Angeles, Ninth- and 10th-grade English, ESL and ESL science teacher

“It is all about empowering students to follow a path that works for them, and teaching them to become their own advocates.”

An immigrant who came to the U.S. with a seventh-grade education and little knowledge of English, Lieber strongly identifies with her students, leading by example and sharing her personal story. She sponsors SUCCEED, a student club that helps first-generation high school graduates, English learners and low-income students prepare and apply for college. “We must believe in students’ ability and capacity for accomplishment and success,” Lieber says. “We teachers have to celebrate milestones with them, because sometimes nobody else does.”

Why teaching is an act of social justice: So many educators use their influence to inspire students by showing them the options they have through education. For example, many of my students are new to the country and don’t know how to navigate different systems such as applying for college or financial aid, registering, taking the SAT. It is all about empowering students to follow a path that works for them, and teaching them to become their own advocates.

Motivating students to succeed: I create a culture of acceptance, comfort, camaraderie and high expectations in my classroom. I make sure they know that education is power, and that by empowering themselves through it they can better themselves, their families, their communities and their country.

Advice on teaching immigrant students and English learners: Continue to believe in these students — most wantto learn, but may get frustrated by the language barrier. Remember that many arrived without a support system in place. It may be the first time they meet a parent, or see their parent, in many years. We as responsible educators need to place emphasis on their social-emotional needs.

Advice to educators on avoiding burnout: Take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Learn how to control your stress levels and manage your time. Sometimes it is OK to say no.

Also, we must learn to choose our battles. Many times we may be discouraged by the current political situation, budget cuts or the latest trend in educational reform. We cannot internalize these. We have to remember that our only constant is our classroom, our students, and the difference we make in their lives through our work, dedication and commitment to student empowering and success.