Paul Lewanski never uses the same lesson plan two years in a row in his high school chemistry class. If need be, he'll adjust his lecture six times each day to fit the needs of students in an individual class.
He skips the most boring chapter in the text, a droning exposition on the periodic table, and replaces it with a class project called a ChemisTree. Students make ornaments representing the elements, write papers about them, then present them to the class.
Helping students learn by taking a different approach is the Tustin High School teacher's trademark. In what he calls a validation of his efforts, Lewanski has been named one of the state's five teachers of the year and will represent California at the National Teacher of the Year contest, education officials announced Wednesday.
"This validation is not something I strive for," said Lewanski, 52, sitting in his classroom after school ended Wednesday. "That said, to have someone tell me I'm doing a good job is just too cool."
A former wrestling coach and Islamic student group advisor, the 19-year teaching veteran said he keeps his classroom open to anyone who needs it.
He is now an advisor to the school's anime club and helps lead the band's booster organization, in addition to training new teachers and hanging out with fellow history buffs as a Civil War re-enactor.
He hopes his love of learning is contagious for his students.
"It's not about whether they master chemistry," Lewanski said. "It's about getting them to love the process of learning."
State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell nominated Lewanski to be the state's entry to the national competition; the winner will be announced in the spring.
"He refuses to let children fail," O'Connell said in a statement, "and sacrifices his personal time to tutor them until they not only become proficient in a subject, but pass with honors."
Merceal DeVault, 16, has seen her chemistry teacher's dedication firsthand. She was petrified of the subject before she met Lewanski, who she said works with her one on one until she understands what he's teaching.
"He makes class a really comfortable atmosphere," the junior said. "He's, like, captivating. He makes it interesting for us, not just for him."
Those words of praise mean as much as any award, Lewanski said.
"This job is all about the children," he said. "Teaching kids and watching them grow is really all the validation I need."