La Jolla public schools recognize their Teachers of the Year

Martha Bagaporo, Cantrell Hatch, Amy Hunt, Ali Nieblas and Nancy Rice are the La Jolla public schools' Teachers of the Year.
(Provided by Martha Bagaporo, Cantrell Hatch, Amy Hunt, Ali Nieblas and Nancy Rice)

As the school year winds down for the five public schools that make up the La Jolla cluster, their campuses took time for one more celebration: that of Teacher of the Year.

Though the Teacher of the Year distinction had been known for some weeks, each of the five honorees was surprised June 2 by a visit from San Diego Unified School District Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino and a school administrator, who gifted each teacher with cards to local restaurants and cafes, along with gratitude and words of praise.

The Teachers of the Year, nominated and voted on by certificated peers at their schools, for each of the five schools are:

Martha Bagaporo, Torrey Pines Elementary School

Martha Bagaporo (center) is surprised by SDUSD Area Superintendent Mitzi Merino and Principal Keith Keiper.
Torrey Pines Elementary School Teacher of the Year Martha Bagaporo (center) is surprised by SDUSD Area Superintendent Mitzi Merino and Principal Keith Keiper.
(Provided by Keith Keiper)

Third-grade teacher Bagaporo strives daily to build community in her classroom at Torrey Pines Elementary School, a skill of which she said she’s proud.

“How I make kids feel is of utmost importance to me,” she said, adding “the curiosity, humor, challenge and sense of accomplishment we experience together on a daily basis is quite satisfying. I feel like I get to have a small part in launching these amazing humans out into the community and the world.”

Bagaporo, who has been at TPES for 19 of her 24 years in teaching, said she feels honored by the Teacher of the Year recognition.

The award “acknowledges not just what an educator does in the classroom, but also points to a willingness to build relationships and contribute to the TPES team as a whole,” she said. “The teachers and staff are dedicated, hardworking, innovative and creative, and I feel grateful to be part of our exceptional school community.”

Bagaporo’s “full commitment to doing what is best for all children is second to none,” said TPES Principal Keith Keiper.

She “creates a strong foundation for learning,” he said, fostering “a culture of empathy, acceptance and inclusion in the classroom” along with academic skills.

Bagaporo’s “passion and dedication to our school community make her an incredible educator,” Keiper said.

Cantrell Hatch, La Jolla High School

La Jolla High School Teacher of the Year Cantrell Hatch (center) with Merino and LJHS Vice Principal Cindy Ueckert June 2.
La Jolla High School Teacher of the Year Cantrell Hatch (center) with Merino and LJHS Vice Principal Cindy Ueckert June 2.
(Megan DeMott)

For Hatch, teaching is all about relationships. In her case, as resident substitute teacher, that means relationships with virtually everyone at La Jolla High School.

Hatch’s job entails teaching any grade and subject area, as needed, which means she has “ been in almost every class on campus and several of the teachers on campus trust me enough to instruct their students, which is such an honor,” she said.

With nine years of teaching experience under her belt, four of them as a substitute at LJHS, Hatch loves “being a small part of students’ learning journey.”

Also a volleyball coach for LJHS, Hatch is “immensely proud” of the relationships she has built on campus this year.

“Building relationships is a key part of teaching and ... learning,” she said. “I have a unique role where I go into several classrooms a day and I do my best to get to know the students in every classroom … so I can support them and help them learn, even if I am only in their class once or twice. It is vitally important for our students to feel safe and known at school.”

Winning Teacher of the Year award was a shock, Hatch said, adding she is “so honored and deeply moved. … It inspires me.”

Principal Chuck Podhorsky said Hatch “is a well-respected teacher at La Jolla High,” further commending her commitment to students and staff.

“[Hatch] has impacted countless lives,” he said. “It is wonderful to see her dedication recognized and celebrated.”

Amy Hunt, Muirlands Middle School

Muirlands Middle School Teacher of the Year Amy Hunt et al
Muirlands Middle School Teacher of the Year Amy Hunt (with flowers) is celebrated by Principal Jeff Luna, Area Superintendent Mitzi Merino and Vice Principal Jennifer Nash (from left).
(Megan DeMott)

Hunt has taught at Muirlands Middle School for 20 of her 23 years in education.

Currently teaching sixth-grade PE teacher and the seventh- and eighth-grade Associated Student Body class, Hunt loves her role as “a positive influence in a student’s life,” she said. “I love the students’ reactions to an ‘ah-ha’ moment. And I love teaching my passion.”

Hunt finds pride in watching her PE students push “themselves daily to be the best person both physically and emotionally that they can be,” she said, along with the events that her ASB class has hosted this year.

“I feel humbled that my extremely talented and hard working colleagues would nominate me” for Teacher of the Year, Hunt said. “I wake up everyday not only looking forward to teaching my students, but also grateful that I am lucky enough to teach with the most amazing staff in SDUSD. Muirlands has been a blessing in my life.”

“Hunt is a caring, thoughtful, and kind teacher,” said Muirlands Principal Jeff Luna. “She is a model [PE] professional whose lessons are standards based, engaging and fun for her students.”

Luna added Hunt is welcoming, positive and supportive of her colleagues as well as her students.

“She is truly a jewel and our community is fortunate to have her,” he said.

Ali Nieblas, Bird Rock Elementary School

Bird Rock Elementary School Teacher of the Year Ali Nieblas is surprised with flowers and gift cards June 2.
(Mitzi Merino)

Teaching kindergarten is right where Nieblas wants to be.

In her third year at Bird Rock Elementary School and her eighth year in teaching, Nieblas enjoys setting her students up “for their whole school career, getting them excited to be at school and interested in learning and growing as a learner,” she said. “I like building their confidence and also helping them with problem solving strategies and ways to be independent.”

Nieblas added that she is especially proud of how her students have honed their self-advocacy skills.

Receiving the Teacher of the Year award is “special,” Nieblas said, as it reveals her peers value her for her teaching as well as her after-school work, which includes roles on school committees and as the campus representative for the teachers’ union.

“Being honored in this way shows that they appreciate it and I’ll continue on doing it,” she said.

“Helping young students become independent and responsible learners and [communicating] well with students and their families” are among Nieblas’s biggest strengths, said interim BRES Principal Jamie Jorgensen.

Nieblas “is a teacher’s teacher, meaning she is always looking out for everyone’s best interest,” Jorgensen said. “She is a joy to work with and an inspiration to everyone.”

Nancy Rice, La Jolla Elementary School

Merino with La Jolla Elementary School Teacher of the Year Nancy Rice.
(Megan DeMott)

Rice, a first grade teacher who has taught at La Jolla Elementary School for half of her 34 years in education, is proud of her flexibility and resiliency, as much of the campus has been under construction, bringing “a lot of challenges,” she said.

Nonetheless, Rice loves teaching for “the special bond that you develop over the year,” she said. “I love seeing how much each child grows and learns throughout the year.”

The Teacher of the Year recognition is an honor, Rice said. “We have so many wonderful teachers at LJES and it makes me feel very special to know they selected me. A lot of us have taught together for many years so we are like family.”

LJES Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said Rice’s “knowledge, expertise, passion, and commitment to her students, families, colleagues, and the field of education” make Rice wholly deserving of the recognition.

“Rice is easily among the best educators and individuals I have had the pleasure of knowing,” Hasselbrink said. “[She] is the teacher that all parents dream of when sending their children to elementary school.”

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