When Jim Klipfel was nominated for California Teacher of the Year, he wanted to win for the sake of the Saugus High School community rather than for himself. “I wanted to bring a smile to Saugus and improve morale,” explains Klipfel, a member of Hart District Teachers Association (HDTA). “Having something that the school could celebrate was very important to me. I didn’t want to let anybody down.”
He didn’t. The social studies teacher and swim coach was not only selected as one of five 2021 California Teachers of the Year but was named California’s nominee for National Teacher of the Year as well.
It was an emotional win for a school community that has suffered enormous trauma. Three months prior to the pandemic, a student shot and killed two classmates and himself, and wounded two others. Klipfel was one of the first arriving on the scene to comfort students.
“The vast majority of students and staff are trying to live every day in a positive manner. The rest need our help.”
The Santa Clarita school briefly closed down after the Nov. 14, 2019, tragedy. Staff collaborated during the closure on ways to support students by adapting curriculum, and even created a Wellness Center with a soothing environment for students and staff to seek counseling.
Helping traumatized students
After the school reopened in December 2019, the staff focused on easing students back into routine and letting them know they were loved and supported. Klipfel raises Labradors for Guide Dogs of America and brought a dog on campus to offer comfort.
“The recovery is longer and harder than outsiders realize,” Klipfel observed at that time, noting the pain of having an empty chair in one of his classes. “But the vast majority of students and staff are hardworking and heroic people who accept there is a reason to get up the next day, and they are trying to live every day in a positive manner. The rest need our help.” Students and staff were continuing their healing process — and then the pandemic hit. The school closed abruptly again, and learning went online. Saying goodbye for the second time in four months was extremely difficult.
“Once students figure out their dream, they will find they can’t wait to get up in the morning and go to class. They will be more motivated, happier and successful.”
When Klipfel learned he had been nominated by his principal to be a Teacher of the Year, his initial reaction was to decline. “If it weren’t for COVID and the shooting, I would have felt much more at ease with the honor of being nominated,” he explains. Klipfel measures personal success not in accolades, but in ways he can help and motivate students.
Eventually, he decided to challenge himself in the same way he encourages students to venture outside of their comfort zone, and he accepted the nomination. But it was nerve-wracking to film his classes for judges during the pandemic while he was also mastering the art of online teaching, figuring out technology, and helping students deal with depression or anxiety related to the trauma they had suffered.
“There was enormous stress. I didn’t want to mess up or let anyone down.”
Always striving to be better
Klipfel is humble when asked to describe his best qualities, but his colleagues in the social studies department and fellow HDTA members are happy to share what makes him a great teacher.
“Jim is the type of person who makes everyone around them want to be better,” says Nicole Ketaily. “He sets the bar high. He leads by example and with intensity that is rooted in a desire for others to succeed. As a young educator, I am grateful for his leadership and inspired by his passion. He takes time to invest in the younger generation and pass on wisdom gained through both successes and stumbles.”
David Russell says Klipfel is amazing.
“He unrelentingly challenges his students to be the best version of themselves. Jim is willing to help students before, during and after school. He’s the first to get to work and last to leave.”
“In three decades of teaching, I have yet to cross paths with anyone like Jim Klipfel,” says Adam Bratt. “He consistently expects the most from himself before asking for sacrifices from anyone else. He is a true master of his profession, beloved by students, and a Hall of Fame colleague.”
A 30-year teacher, Klipfel earned his bachelor’s degree from UC Davis and his teaching credential from UC Irvine. He presently teaches 11th grade AP U.S. history and coaches swimming at Saugus, where he has also advised the Science Olympiad team, overseen the journalism program, and helped struggling junior high school students with an intervention class.
Klipfel was raised in Nebraska and Southern California and is one of eight children. He had a happy childhood, but it was often “survival of the fittest” with so many siblings. He became a teacher to offer students personalized attention and be the mentor and personal motivator he thinks most young people seek.
Student motivation, confidence
His mission is inspiring teens to acquire dreams, motivation, confidence and skills. If there is one thing he has learned from recent challenges, it’s that students need adults more than ever.
“The average high school student doesn’t have a clear dream yet,” says Klipfel. “I encourage them to spend 15 to 20 minutes a week looking at rewarding careers, doing personality tests on jobs they are interested in, and then focusing on fields they are passionate about. Once they figure it out, they will find they can’t wait to get up in the morning and go to class. They will be more motivated, happier and successful.”
Personal growth is also important to Klipfel. He is inspired by the Japanese concept of “kaizen,” the focused dedication to improvement. He seeks feedback from students’ evaluations and takes their comments to heart.
He has become more empathetic since the shooting, spending the start of every class discussing a mental health topic.
“Today we discussed how people can choose misery or strength,” he shares. “For example, if a student asked five people to go to the dance and five say no, that student can either grow frustrated and depressed or reflect on ways to grow from rejection. Another example is if a student gets a poor grade, they can decide to take only easy classes. Or they can try harder. It’s all about making choices that make you stronger.”
Klipfel is glad that he made the choice of entering the Teacher of the Year competition. Not only has it made him more introspective about his own teaching, but it has put a spotlight on the community he loves in Los Angeles County.
“This award is the honor of a lifetime, and something I received during an extremely challenging period of my life,” says Klipfel. “I am fortunate to have a job that I love. And I am extremely grateful to have the support of my wonderful community, inspiring colleagues and amazing students for making this happen. This was really a school and staff of the year honor, not just about me.”
Watch Klipfel’s speech as he is honored at CTA State Council in April.