Kenilworth Junior High's Isaac Raya named Sonoma County Teacher of the Year

History and media teacher Isaac Raya sets up his new classroom at Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)


Sonoma County’s newly selected Teacher of the Year is known for the innovative 21st-century technology he brings to the classroom, but he says old-fashioned virtues are at the core of his success.

“It’s integrity. If you don’t have integrity in this position, you’re not going to survive,” said Isaac Raya, a U.S. history and digital media teacher at Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma. “If you don’t have compassion for (students), they’re not going to respond to you.”

Raya, 39, graduated from Analy High School in Sebastopol and didn’t plan to become a teacher when he earned a degree in political science from UC Davis. Before becoming a wrestling coach at El Molino High School in Forestville, he did paralegal work, but once he recognized teaching as his niche, he quickly abandoned the “terribly boring” case work that left him feeling unfulfilled.

“I knew, knew immediately, that this was it,” Raya said. “I’ll probably do this forever.”

Raya, now 12 years into his career, teaches digital media and U.S. history, but also sponsors the broadcast news program, developed a curriculum for English language learners and coaches wrestling. He had nearly 190 students this school year, plus the 25 boys and girls he worked with as head wrestling coach for the Kenilworth Kolts. He also served as an assistant girls wrestling coach at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma.

In nominating Raya for the Teacher of the Year award, Kenilworth Principal Emily Dunnagan and Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Steve Bolman acknowledged Raya’s dedication to students and staff and his innovative use of technology to enrich student learning.

“I’m just a representative of the change (toward technology),” Raya said. “It’s an exciting time for us as educators.”

Raya says he’s fortunate to teach in an era when technology and the Internet can enhance curriculum. He’s part of a nonprofit online professional learning network called Computer Using Educators that shares resources for new learning concepts and leadership development.

“I just do a lot of different things,” he said. “I’m always looking for things to adopt in my curriculum.”

Raya also shares his best practices with fellow educators by leading professional development trainings and writes blogs for every class he teaches, keeping parents and students updated about homework and assignments.

This school year, he helped a dozen student volunteers put together Kenilworth’s live KTV news broadcast each morning, using state-of-the art equipment in a studio located in the school library. He and teaching colleague Laura Bradley taught the students to produce and anchor school news in a lively format with student-generated graphics, videos and scripts.

In the fall, KTV will change from a before-school club to two elective classes open to 60 students.

Raya said he is a fan of collaborative, project-based learning that engages student participation. He describes his classes as interactive, with “lots and lots” of projects. Students agree.

“He uses a lot of hand motions to teach us,” said 13-year-old eighth-grader Edwin Barrios. “He has lots of props that he uses. It makes it more fun.”

Fellow eighth-grader Aubrey Babala, 13, said Raya always is approachable and willing to listen.

“You can talk to him about anything. He’s like your best friend in eighth grade,” she said. “He’s really funny, but he also gets everything done at the same time.”

History students recently completed videos about the Mexican-American War, using original drawings and voice-overs to share their lessons. Raya’s digital media course for seventh-graders covers filmmaking from story selection to editing, culminating in a film festival to showcase student talent.

Raya has been particularly successful working with English-language learners, using activities that help build vocabulary and speaking skills. Since he began teaching at Kenilworth a decade ago, he has taught Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English classes, developing a curriculum that keeps students involved and interested.

Working in collaboration with other Kenilworth teachers, Raya has improved achievement and promotion rates for the school’s English-language learners.

“The most important thing I do is get kids to talk to each other,” he said. “When they’re having actual conversations with someone, they’re trying to understand (lessons).”

Thirteen-year-old eighth-grader Simran, who doesn’t use a last name, said Raya is patient and takes time to assure student understanding.

“He explains things really well,” she said. “He explains (moments in history) so good that you can imagine them happening.”

Raya says teaching empathy is equally important.

“I try to show empathy and show there are other things outside this classroom and in the world,” he said.

Matthew De Lucia-Zeltzer, another Petaluma educator, was the runner-up for Sonoma County’s Teacher of the Year program. He is a fifth-grade teacher at McKinley Elementary School, where nearly 40 percent of the students in his Gifted and Talented Education class are socio-economically disadvantaged and/or second-language learners. He is known for providing creative and carefully crafted instruction to engage students in learning. De Lucia-Zeltzer also brings technology as a learning tool.