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Shining Stars: La Jolla teachers lauded at local ceremony

Giving special recognition to educators who carry out their jobs with heart, creativity and in “miraculous ways,” those from the La Jolla Cluster of schools were recognized as “Teachers of the Year,” May 1 at Bella Vista Social Club by their principals and the San Diego Unified District.

They are: Michael Naylor of La Jolla Elementary School, Lisa Kluch of Torrey Pines Elementary School, Tara Barber of Bird Rock Elementary School, Tanya Nielsen of Muirlands Middle School and Melanie Saddler of La Jolla High School.

Though SDUSD has a district-wide recognition program, this evening belonged to La Jolla teachers only. Each principal offered a few words of praise as part of the festive, intimate event. Due to illness, Bird Rock’s Barber could not attend.

 
From left: Lisa Kluch and Sarah Ott, Donna Tripi and Michael Naylor, area superintendent Mitzi Merino, Harlan Klein and Tanya Nielson, Melanie Saddler and Charles Podhorsky Ashley Mackin-Solomon

La Jolla Elementary School principal Donna Tripi opened by giving kudos to Naylor for being the only male member on the teaching staff and “taking it in stride,” for chipping in and helping wherever needed, for his elaborate Halloween costumes (this year he was ‘Skater Vader’ and the year before that he was Gru from “Despicable Me,” and the other fourth-grade teachers were Minions), and more.

“He has incredible instruction skills and is great at meeting the social and emotional needs of his students. He is also extremely creative; you go into his classroom and his charts are filled with beautiful pictures, he makes characters that go with all the stories, it’s just incredible,” she said. “He is all around an amazing guy and we are lucky to have him.”

Following the event, Naylor said: “At a school where each of my peers contribute so much and any of them would be worthy of this honor, I can say it’s very special that they would allow me to carry this privilege and represent them. I am only as good as my partner, my team, and the other staff I’m surrounded by.”

As to why he became a teacher, Naylor said: “I grew up in a home where education was incredibly important for the opportunities it could provide you. My mother was raising five children by herself and spent a lot of time working multiple jobs.

“School and the child center, where I spent most of my days, became a special place, and the teachers, who taught and cared for me and my twin brother, became our heroes. The encouragement and love of learning they inspired in me is what I always strive to instill in my own students.”

Torrey Pines Elementary School principal Sarah Ott said of her selection, Kluch, that she has been with Torrey Pines for 12 years and is “really strong in all subjects.” Kluch taught first- and fifth-grade, and currently teaches third-grade.

“I often go to her class first and am reminded of what I want to see (in all the classrooms). This year, I gave her the challenge of working with new third-grade teachers, and she was able to lead her whole grade level and take that leadership role to show the team what needs to be done. I knew with confidence that she would lead them in the right direction and do everything that needed to be done for the students,” Ott said.

Kluch said it was a “true honor” to be recognized.

On why she became a teacher, she said: “I recognized that I was my happiest was when I was working with children, so I decided to become a teacher. Even from my first, very nervous day student-teaching, I knew I was in the right place. I love the joy that children bring to the classroom every day and I love watching them grow and learn. Each day, I get to come to work to laugh, learn, and have a good time with a great group of children.”

Crediting her with being “authentic,” and leading “with heart,” Muirlands Middle School principal Harlan Klein said eighth-grade special education teacher and SDUSD case manager Nielsen has been at Muirlands for nine years.

“Every single day, whether she is working with the highest-performing student or the most-challenging student, she is consistent. That requires a soft disposition to get students to respond to you. She is also a case manager for the (school’s special education) department. In the course of time I’ve been here, she’s taken on the higher profile cases and does such a good job preparing them, not just to be successful in eighth-grade, but as they transition to high school. She has participated in the transition for kids coming into our school and is a consistent force,” Klein said.

Nielsen later told the Light: “As a special educator, I feel we often do a lot behind the scenes for students, as well as in the classroom, and it felt so wonderful to be recognized by my colleagues for the work I do. I enjoy working with all students to help them succeed regardless of their ability level. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see a student’s face light up when they have felt some level of success in class, which is why I love this job!”

La Jolla High School principal Charles Podhorsky said math teacher Saddler has been an asset to her fellow math teachers, students and parent community.

“As high school teachers, we tend to be a little independent and do our own thing, but she has taken the department and brought them together for social events and brought them together as a cohesive team. She is also the heart and soul of our tutoring program.

“Everybody who struggles in math, once they find out that Melanie is tutoring, they’re there and excited. She is also a huge asset for our community because she works so well with parents. She is so good though, that at some point I’d like to shift her into a leadership role ... just planting that seed,” he said, chuckling. “I judge a classroom by whether I would have my daughter in that class, and I would be honored to have my daughter in Melanie’s classroom.”

The reason she became a math teacher, Saddler told the Light: “I’ve wanted to teach math since my sophomore year in high school. But before that, I was involved in tutoring programs in my middle school. In my junior and senior years, I had a fantastic math teacher who mentored and encouraged me through college and teacher training. Since then, each time I faced a new challenge, I discovered I had natural personality characteristics that really lend themselves to being a quality educator.”

Now, she said: “Every time a student tells me they enjoyed class, and finally get math, I know that I’m where I’m called to be, and all the work, training, and daily challenges have been worthwhile.”

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