Burbank's teacher of the Year: Making students wonder

Out of 75,000 eligible educators, Burroughs High School teacher Jill Tobin stands among 16 chosen as Los Angeles County Teachers of the Year.

“It’s totally humbling,” she said. “I feel like I don’t deserve this any more than anybody else at this school or at this district.”

In her ninth year of teaching science at Burroughs, Tobin aspires to help students apply the subject to their own lives.

In one infamous lesson, students learned how phytoplankton require nitrogen made available from whale waste in order to fulfill their role as the basis of the ocean’s food chain, which is a necessary element to the planet’s well-being.

In class that day, the message was, “our life and the lives of other creatures are dependent on whale poop,” Tobin said.

That lesson may have partly led Tobin to what she calls her greatest professional achievement — the time one student wrote a response to what she was learning in Tobin’s class, ending her note with, “Thanks for making me wonder about things, Mrs. Tobin.”

“At that moment, I thought, that’s my greatest accomplishment. I have made my students wonder,” she said.

Emilio Urioste, director of secondary education for Burbank Unified, hired Tobin nearly a decade ago when he was principal at Burroughs.

“She’s one of those teachers that when your child has her, you know that your child is going to be very engaged and know what’s going on,” he said.

Tobin, 34, grew up in a family of farmers who milked cows and slaughtered chickens near the village of Vanlue, Ohio. As a girl, she roamed vast open fields in the countryside, where she’d catch mice or return home with wounded birds.

“I think I always knew I wanted to teach. I always loved bragging to my mom and friends all the cool things I learned,” she said of her jaunts in the fields.

She graduated as valedictorian of her senior class of 24 students, bound for the University of Findlay on a full scholarship.

As a junior there, her stepfather, Ted Dennis, a coach and fifth-grade teacher, died. His unexpected death, the result of a car accident, devastated Tobin.

At his memorial, one of his former student recalled Dennis always said “hi” to him, and Tobin wished her own students would say the same of her one day.

“That I notice every kid and that I see every kid,” she said. “There are so many kids that are quiet and overlooked. They want someone to say ‘hi’ to them.”

Now a mother of two, Tobin and her husband, Randy, regularly return to Ohio to visit family. They were on her aunt and uncle’s farm in July when Tobin conducted an interview via Skype with a panel of educators seeking the next round of Los Angeles County Teachers of the Year.

When Tobin returned to her Hollywood home, a letter from the Los Angeles County Office of Education let her know that she’d landed among the top 16 in the county.

“It’s almost like, ‘why me?’” she asked, adding that she teaches among educators who are her mentors. “I feel like I do my job just like everybody else [would do] my job … I’m definitely standing on the shoulders of giants.”

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Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.

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