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‘You are a gift to our school and the teaching profession’

Teachers of the year 2019
Area 5 superintendent Mitzi Merino stands with (back row) Torrey Pines Elementary School fourth grade teacher Martha Bagaporo, Bird Rock Elementary second grade teacher Michelle Montali, La Jolla Elementary School third grade teacher Heather Polen, La Jolla Elementary principal Stephanie Hasselbrink, Muirlands Middle School principal Geof Martin, (from row) Muirlands Middle School teacher Julie Latta, Bird Rock principal Andi Frost and Torrey Pines principal Nona Richard.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Contagious smiles and tears were shared and shed during the La Jolla Cluster Association’s local Teacher of the Year recognition, June 3, at the Bella Vista Social Club. With the theme “Teachers Make the World A Better Place,” the event served as an opportunity for an informal celebration of these teachers over dinner. Principals from each school — most of whom are new to their campuses this year — said a few words about their awardees, who were chosen with input from their colleagues.

La Jolla Elementary School

Of third-grade teacher Heather Polen, principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said: “We have a lot of teachers that we know will do anything for their students, but Heather really does. She obviously enjoys every moment of it. She will come to school for 80s day and be 100 percent into it! She comes up with activities around whatever the topic is, and empowers her students to problem-solve and think outside the box, so her students feel they are the drivers of their own destiny.”

Speaking to Polen — as the teacher wiped tears and joked “I can’t even look at you” — Hasselbrink said, “You inspire your students, your colleagues and your team loves you. You are a gift to our school and the teaching profession.”

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Polen teaches third-graders from La Jolla Elementary, Bird Rock and Torrey Pines Elementary schools through the San Diego Unified School District’s Seminar program on the La Jolla Elementary campus, which serves those who need high-level, advanced and challenging curricular activities; and those with extremely high-tested ability but low school achievement.

And to engage her students, she is known to arrange her classroom to drive the topic home. “The kids come in and the whole room will be designed to a theme,” Polen explained. “Everything in the room reflects work we were doing anyway … so we did Monster’s Inc. one week; and for the testing and reviewing of everything, we did a life-sized Candyland game for a week. It’s been so fun. The goal is that they make a connection to these lessons that they can carry with them forever.”

She added: “I love that every day is a new day. There are good days and some are bad days, but in the end, we’re a family in my room, so it’s wonderful.”

Torrey Pines Elementary School

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Rather than one thing she likes most about the teaching profession, Torrey Pines Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Martha Bagaporo has 206.

“I have a tally on a board in my classroom of reasons why I love teaching fourth-grade,” she said. “Sometimes it can be the student’s humor or the excitement as they work through something challenging. I tell the students the good things they do throughout the day that gives me the warm fuzzies: when they help each other, when they are kind, etc.”

And Bagaporo’s joyful attitude seems to spread to those around her.

“She is the kindest person I have ever met and I haven’t heard her say one negative thing about a child — ever,” said principal Nona Richard. “That is pretty remarkable as a teacher to be that positive and that focused. Martha is incredibly committed, she is the first person to greet me in the morning. She stops by just to say hi and that is one of the best parts of the morning. … She is a solution-seeker, but not a Pollyanna. She will recognize a situation for what it is and work to change it. She realizes that when we come to work with our hearts out, we can get hurt. It’s more than a job, it’s a relationship with colleagues and students and she is willing to be authentic.”

Calling the recognition “a huge hug” from Torrey Pines, Bagaporo said: “The award is about the way we connect with kids, families and colleagues. It’s very meaningful to me because it’s the best validation when staff recognizes your actions and commitment and how you work together for the kids.”

She added her priority is making the students feel empowered and good about themselves. “Yes, please learn, but really, that’s what matters,” she said.

Bird Rock Elementary School

Given that Bird Rock Elementary honoree and second-grade teacher Michelle Montali is a legendary logophile (lover of words) on the campus, principal Andi Frost did not rely solely on her own words to describe her. Instead, Frost canvassed teachers who work with her to describe Montali and get the broadest variety. (Did you mean “...teachers that work with Montali to describe her and get the broadest variety of words.” ?)

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Frost read to a blushing Montali: “Michelle is a funny, witty, sharp word-wizard; a collaborative team player; insightful, forthright, inspirational, incredibly intelligent, and on a seemingly unending quest to know more;
a tinkerer, a problem-solver, a verb-ivore, a do-er; a person willing to be wrong for the sake of learning more to benefit kids, and always willing to share the knowledge she gains. The world of public education is made better because of her dedication and it is my pleasure to celebrate her.”

While “honored” by the recognition, Montali said the timing was bittersweet.

“It makes me so sad to come to the end of the school year,” she said. “June gloom takes on a new meaning every year. Of my four children, two of them really rankle with me calling my students ‘my kids,’ but they are!”

Montali taught second-grade 20 years ago, and stepped away from teaching for a while. Having returned, she said there is nothing like it, and is more dedicated than ever to providing a “lightbulb” moment for her students.

“There is just nothing like when the lightbulb goes on for a kid and they discover something they didn’t know was possible two or three minutes earlier,” she explained. “I try to look for that every day, and to give them the opportunity to find something new.

“There is nothing like teaching anywhere in the world … or anything that matches that moment of realization for a young kid. It’s there for adults, too, but when children jump out of their seats at new things that they’ve put together, it gives me joy every day.”

Muirlands Middle School

It should come as no surprise that sixth- grade science teacher Julie Latta was this year’s honoree for Muirlands Middle School.

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Latta was a runner-up in the San Diego Unified School District Teacher of Year recognition, as well.

Muirlands Principal Geof Martin explained: “She does an amazing job engaging kids, they love to go to her classroom. Even I like to go to her classroom!

“If I am having a bad day, I just want to hang out in her room. It’s amazing to see how the kids are engaged in the scientific process.

“She has been a great local leader, school leader and science department leader. She is an all-star on our team and really impactful.”

Additionally, Latta created the TRIAGE program, an intensive, teacher team-based intervention program that helps struggling students. The program was so successful that it has been expanded to seventh- and eighth-grade students.

“To me, the fun of teaching is that it is an outward facing pursuit. So it is always putting energy out … having the attention put on me is an awkward, but awesome, experience,” she said.

“This is really nice. The fact that we are valued and acknowledged is what I know we deserve.”

Always looking to improve the educational experience, Latta dedicated much of the celebratory dinner to learning from her peers.

“I feel it is so important that we are vertically teaming, and to have the schools communicate, not just among our grades but within our Cluster,” she said.

“I look at this group as a highly motivated group of people who care about more than just the four walls in which they teach. They care about the school community, so I’m enjoying getting to bend their ears.”

La Jolla High School

Neither La Jolla High School principal Charles Podhorsky nor his awardee were in attendance at the event and given the upcoming graduation, school representatives did not return calls with more information or the teacher’s name.


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