La Jolla public schools celebrate their Teachers of the Year

Teachers of the Year 2021, from left: Andrea Carlson, Heather Chiaro, Tori Geyer, Carole LeCren and Stephani McCabe-Halloran.
The La Jolla public school Teachers of the Year for 2021 are (from left): Andrea Carlson, Heather Chiaro, Tori Geyer, Carole LeCren and Stephani McCabe-Halloran.
(Courtesy of Andrea Carlson, Heather Chiaro, Tori Geyer, Carole LeCren and Rory Halloran)

In a school year characterized by unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the five public schools in La Jolla have chosen their Teachers of the Year for 2021.

The five will receive a gift basket of personalized items including a tote bag, mask and shirt from their principals and San Diego Unified School District Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino during National Teacher Appreciation Week this week. SDUSD also will honor them and the rest of the district’s Teachers of the Year, along with the 2020 winners, in a virtual celebration Tuesday, May 4.

District Teachers of the Year are nominated by certificated peers at their schools. The teachers union, the San Diego Education Association, collects the nominations and gives ballots to the schools for voting by the teachers at each site.

The La Jolla Teachers of the Year are:

Andrea Carlson, Muirlands Middle School

Muirlands Middle School Teacher of the Year Andrea Carlson
(Courtesy of Andrea Carlson)

Sixth-grade multi-subject and special-education teacher Andrea Carlson has been at Muirlands Middle School for all of her 14-year San Diego teaching career and said she has no plans to leave any time soon.

While she said it was “a bit embarrassing” to be named Teacher of the Year, she added that “it is nice to be recognized for the support I provide to students and the working relationships I have formed. It is an honor to be Teacher of the Year, but I feel like we are all teachers of the year this school year.”

She said the past year — marked by districtwide campus closures, a pivot to online learning and now classroom reopening under a hybrid in-person/online system — has taught her to look at the concept of “normal” differently.

“We had to reinvent the wheel and rise to a challenge we have never been faced with,” Carlson said. “I am always proud to be a teacher, especially a special-education teacher, but I have never been more proud of my profession than I was this past year. … Everyone has gone above and beyond to make online instruction work.”

Muirlands Principal Jeff Luna said Carlson “inspires others with her consistent professionalism and hard work. Her kind demeanor and generous nature make her popular with both students and staff.”

He said Carlson’s colleagues describe her as “kind, consistent, hard-working and compassionate.”

Heather Chiaro, Torrey Pines Elementary School

Torrey Pines Elementary School Teacher of the Year Heather Chiaro
(Courtesy of Heather Chiaro)

Heather Chiaro has taught many grade levels at Torrey Pines Elementary School during her 17 years there and currently teaches first grade. She said the school is a “very special and unique place where we value kindness, respect, responsibility.”

Despite the challenge of teaching most of the past year entirely online, Chiaro said she is impressed with how quickly her young students grasped the concept of online learning. “They continue to grow and succeed and pursue their passions,” she said.

She said being Teacher of the Year is “an honor and I’m very excited. This year we all have gone above and beyond our expectations. … We all deserve ... a huge recognition for what we’ve undergone.” The staff at TPES is “like a family,” she said.

TPES Principal Nona Richard said Chiaro is the “perfect combination of organizational skills, understanding of curriculum, temperance, creativity and flexibility.”

“I have never met a parent who was not delighted to have their child in Heather’s class,” Richard said. “Over the past year, with parents taking on an even greater role in student learning, the praise of Heather is exceptionally high. Families see that she is patient, calm, encouraging, prepared, thoughtful and effective.”

But Chiaro isn’t the only “Teacher of the Year” at TPES. Staff voted to honor the parents of their students, an idea that originated with third-grade teacher Tony Serafin.

As the schools transitioned to online learning last year, “it took a lot for us to figure things out,” Serafin said. “The support from the parents was incredible.”

He credited the parents with triumphing over technology issues and helping with assignments and expressing their appreciation for teachers, all while sorting through their own pandemic-related hardships.

Serafin said he pitched the idea of parents as Teacher of the Year to his fellow TPES teachers, who voted “overwhelmingly” for the parents in an “idea that didn’t fit into the box.”

Tori Geyer, Bird Rock Elementary School

Bird Rock Elementary School Teacher of the Year Tori Geyer
(Courtesy of Tori Geyer)

Teaching at Bird Rock Elementary School for the past 3½ years means Tori Geyer gets to indulge in her “love of this community.” An education specialist who coordinates services for and delivers instruction to students with individualized education plans, Geyer is a former nanny and children’s gym instructor.

Geyer said she has learned through the past year that children are “more way more flexible than we think, and they adapt.” But socialization is still important, she said. “We did our best on the computers, but no technology will ever take the place of another human being.”

Being named Teacher of the Year is “so rewarding,” she said. “I look up to every single one of the teachers that I work with and I have learned so much from all of them, even before I was even teaching at the school.

“This school has a special place in my heart.”

BRES Principal Andi Frost said Geyer is “reflective, hard-working and devoted. Generally, when Tori encounters a challenge, she engages in a cycle of personal learning to meet and overcome the challenge,” which includes talking with others, reading and reflecting.

Geyer “does not give up and she does not rest on previous successes,” Frost said.

Carole LeCren, La Jolla High School

La Jolla High School Teacher of the Year Carole LeCren
(Courtesy of Carole LeCren)

Carole LeCren, La Jolla High School’s yearbook advisor who also teaches English to sophomores and seniors, has stayed at the school for 25 of her 26 years in teaching because of the “mix of kids,” she said. “I like the creativity that keeps me going.”

Though online learning often “gets a bad rap, there are a lot of things that were good about it,” she said, such as the ability to individualize instruction using Zoom’s breakout rooms.

LeCren said being Teacher of the Year means her peers see “that I try and do the best for my students. But I would say that all of my other colleagues do that, too, and we all do it in different ways.”

LJHS Principal Chuck Podhorsky said LeCren “has been an important part of our La Jolla High community for over 25 years,” serving on the school’s instructional leadership and site governance teams and mentoring newer teachers.

“Carole has changed the lives of thousands of students,” Podhorsky said. “Students love being in her classes and often reflect that her commitment to developing skilled writers has made their transition into college immeasurably better.”

Stephani McCabe-Halloran, La Jolla Elementary School

La Jolla Elementary School Teacher of the Year Stephani McCabe-Halloran
(Rory Halloran)

La Jolla Elementary School is not just for education, first-grade teacher Stephani McCabe-Halloran said. “It’s a memory-building place.”

McCabe-Halloran has taught at the school for about 20 years and said she loves it because of “the kids, the parents, the sense of community. The parents have really helped make the school a great place.”

Teaching mostly online in the past year has impressed on McCabe-Halloran “how resilient the kids were. They were just happy no matter what; they rose to the occasion.”

Of her Teacher of the Year designation, she said, “I’m not the only one who should have been selected.” Her peers “did a great job of making sure that the kids had everything they need,” she said. “Everyone deserved it this year because … we all work so hard.”

LJES Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said McCabe-Halloran is “incredibly dedicated to her students and families, as demonstrated by the long hours she puts in to ensure that she is ready for her students and is able to meet their needs.”

Hasselbrink said McCabe-Halloran “offers a warm, welcoming, inclusive environment in which all students feel loved and successful.”

She also “shares ideas with her colleagues, supports them in any way possible and creates a fun work environment for us all,” Hasselbrink said.

— La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon contributed to this report.