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Sonoma County education officials recognize three outstanding local educators

Even amid the extraordinary demands placed upon all 4,500 local educators, a few standouts rose to the top when county officials looked for Teacher of the Year candidates.|

How Teacher of the Year works

The purpose of California’s Teacher of the Year Program is to honor the teaching profession and to heighten interest in teaching as a career, according to the California Department of Education. The program began in 1972.

To be eligible, educators must be credentialed and have taught for at least eight years. After being selected by their county office of education, teachers submit an application to the state. If pandemic precautions allow, state officials will conduct site visits to observe the teacher in the classroom. Applicants that make the next round interview with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

From there, the state superintendent names several educators as California Teachers of the Year. Of those teachers, one is selected to serve as the state's representative to the National Teacher of the Year Program.

After a year when teachers re-imagined instruction online, provided students support through screens rather than in person and adjusted to a slew of shifting health guidelines, how did the Sonoma County Office of Education single out just a few for recognition?

"It was very challenging,“ said Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools. ”I commend every teacher because they all deserve awards.“

Still, even with the extraordinary demands placed upon all 4,500 local educators, a few standouts rose to the top.

The county education office announced this week it has recognized three local teachers for “exemplary, creative, and effective work serving students and supporting families” during a school year characterized by disruption to normal routines and unique challenges.

Danielle Kennedy, a special education teacher at La Tercera Elementary School, is Sonoma County’s 2022 Teacher of the Year. She’s still having a hard time believing it, she said.

“It’s a little surreal,” she said.

A single parent to two children, including one who follows an individualized education plan, Kennedy brought both empathy from her parental experience with special education and her expertise as an educator to bear on the myriad challenges her 12 students faced in accessing school virtually during most of the past 15 months.

Melinda Susan, director of the South County Consortium, which provides special education services to many Petaluma students, nominated Kennedy for Teacher of the Year. She described her colleague as “remarkable,” with an exceptional ability to meet students where they are.

“She would never try and fit a square peg in a round hole,” Susan said. “Danielle’s classroom is full of shapes and if there's somebody that walks through the door who is a completely different shape from somebody she’s ever come across, she will do everything in her power to modify her teaching and her classroom to accommodate that student.”

One extra challenge Kennedy faced in getting to know the students in her class was the fact that she had never spent any time with them in person. Kennedy worked as a general education teacher for 3½ years, and worked with the South County Consortium between August 2015 and June 2019. But she had moved away briefly, and returned to Sonoma County to teach again last summer, when it was already clear the pandemic was set to keep school remote for at least the start.

“It was really challenging,” Kennedy said. “At first it was definitely one of those moments where you go, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this. I don’t know if I can do this.’”

But Kennedy rallied. She spoke with the teacher who had formerly taught the students at La Tercera whom she was now responsible for. She set up one-on-one meetings with the students and their families. Little by little, she started to gain a sense of their personalities, likes and dislikes — in addition to their behavioral, social emotional and academic needs.

“I just felt like there was this commitment from her that this wasn’t going to be not as good as real school,” said Angi Busick, mother of a fifth grader in Kennedy’s class last year. Kennedy took the time to learn about Busick’s son Jack, including his proclivity for anything Beauty and the Beast.

That familiarity with Jack’s preferences came in handy while trying to keep him engaged with school, Angi Busick said.

There was the day when Jack, who has Down syndrome and is nonverbal, was fed up with a fine-motor skills activity that involved drawing a frog Kennedy was demonstrating on his laptop. He ran away, Angi said, and she was chasing after him with the laptop trying to regain his attention.

But Kennedy intervened from the other side of the screen: she offered Jack the chance to instead draw a rose, like the one in Beauty and the Beast.

Educators call that moment a “redirect.” But to Angi Busick, a parent and a teacher herself, Kennedy’s quick thinking was a godsend.

“He perks up and turns around,” she recalled. “Suddenly he’s sitting there trying to draw a rose because she’s changed the focus of her activity. But it still gets him to implement the skills she was trying to get him to do.”

Kennedy also made extra efforts to bring tools to her families from the classroom, including desks that she sanitized and dropped off at their homes. For most if not all of her students, a sense of consistency played a key role in enabling them to connect with content and therapies throughout the week.

Providing a designated work space, Kennedy said, was intended “to keep that expectation of when we do schoolwork, we sit at our desk.”

A guiding philosophy grounded Kennedy whenever she started to feel discouraged.

“If I’m not willing to do it for my students, I cannot expect my child’s teacher to do it for him,” she said. “I have to be willing to be the teacher for my students that I want my son and my daughter to have.”

Other leaders awarded

Heather Garcia-Rossi of Santa Rosa City Schools and Lisa Piehl of Santa Rosa High School are also walking away from their school year with awards.

Garcia-Rossi was the finalist for Sonoma County Teacher of the Year. Lisa Piehl was awarded a new recognition, the School Community Leadership Award, which the education office created “to acknowledge this moment in time and the extraordinary efforts many teachers took to maintain a sense of community and belonging despite the challenges of distance learning,” said spokeswoman Jamie Hansen.

Similarly to Kennedy, Garcia-Rossi and Piehl also had mottos they would repeat to themselves as they tackled each hurdle that presented itself throughout the year.

Garcia-Rossi would sometimes repeat hers to herself as she answered student emails past 11 p.m., after working in her district office from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.

“I would tell myself, ‘This is not the students’ fault,’” she said. “I said I would take on this teaching assignment, so when a student has a question, I can’t let it fall through the cracks.”

Garcia-Rossi taught for 12 weeks total during the 2020-2021 school year, stepping up to fill teaching gaps in addition to juggling her administrative role as a teacher on special assignment. Her responsibilities in the latter role centered on equity initiatives, including developing curriculum for the district’s new ethnic studies courses and professional development for teachers.

She first filled in at the beginning of the school year, taking on five English periods with Elsie Allen High School students less than 24 hours before the first day of school, while the district was scrambling to hire more faculty. After more teachers came in over the next six weeks, Garcia-Rossi returned to her equity work full-time.

When the school district was preparing for a return to in-person instruction in the spring, Garcia-Ross again stepped up to teach English virtually to the students who opted to stay home through the end of the year. She took on seven periods in which a staggering 400-plus students were enrolled. Most of those sections included students in high school, students receiving special education and English language learners.

Heather Garcia-Rossi, an English language arts teacher currently on special assignment working on equity initiatives with Santa Rosa City Schools, is a finalist for Sonoma County Teacher of the Year. (Sonoma County Office of Education)
Heather Garcia-Rossi, an English language arts teacher currently on special assignment working on equity initiatives with Santa Rosa City Schools, is a finalist for Sonoma County Teacher of the Year. (Sonoma County Office of Education)

It was far from an easy starting point to plan lessons for the next six weeks. But Garcia-Rossi jumped in.

“I recognized in the first day that what I needed to do was listen to them,” she said. She surveyed them, to find out what they would be interested in and where they needed help. She also made time for their parents to meet with her virtually and ask questions.

Rather than requiring students to keep their cameras on as a way to see if they were paying attention, Garcia-Rossi used the chat feature on Zoom to keep them engaged. Students could send their responses to her prompts to the whole class or just to her if they chose.

“The hardest thing was saying goodbye in the end,” she said. “It amazed me how connected I felt to them. I was shocked that after six weeks I would find it just as hard as I always did.”

Piehl was also nominated for Teacher of the Year. As the new activities director at Santa Rosa High School, where she has also taught agriculture classes in the career-tech department for two decades, Piehl empowered student leaders to foster community among their peers even while learning from home.

“It took a little coaxing to believe we could reframe these events to make them COVID-safe,” Piehl said.

Lisa Piehl, an agriculture teacher and student activities director at Santa Rosa High School, received the School Community Leadership award from the Sonoma County Office of Education in June 2021. (Sonoma County Office of Education)
Lisa Piehl, an agriculture teacher and student activities director at Santa Rosa High School, received the School Community Leadership award from the Sonoma County Office of Education in June 2021. (Sonoma County Office of Education)

Stella Clarkson, a junior, described Piehl’s impact on the student leaders bluntly.

“The reason we did events is because she motivated us,” she said. “It was really for the students and I think all of us know that.”

The Associated Student Body was able to put on a drive-thru Halloween event that included pumpkin giveaways for carving, and a holiday lights drive-thru. They held their Mr. Panther competition and even hosted prom.

“It was so unique, what she did,” Herrington said. The committee that selects the local Teacher of the Year didn’t want Piehl’s contributions to go unrecognized, he said, so they designed the award to recognize her accomplishments.

Each of the teachers was eager to give credit to others. Kennedy highlighted the work of her instructional aides. Garcia-Rossi pointed to teachers who dealt with more weeks of instruction. Piehl praised her students for their perseverance and other teachers for volunteering at the events they held.

Herrington, though, said the three have a lot to be proud of.

“They are representing all teachers in Sonoma County, so that’s something to be said,” he said. “They are very outstanding.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

How Teacher of the Year works

The purpose of California’s Teacher of the Year Program is to honor the teaching profession and to heighten interest in teaching as a career, according to the California Department of Education. The program began in 1972.

To be eligible, educators must be credentialed and have taught for at least eight years. After being selected by their county office of education, teachers submit an application to the state. If pandemic precautions allow, state officials will conduct site visits to observe the teacher in the classroom. Applicants that make the next round interview with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

From there, the state superintendent names several educators as California Teachers of the Year. Of those teachers, one is selected to serve as the state's representative to the National Teacher of the Year Program.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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