In a year marked by upset, 2 local school districts give 4 educators ‘Teacher of the Year’ honors
Just because local students have largely been corralled in online classes for most of the year doesn’t mean teachers haven’t been demonstrating excellence. If anything, virtual instruction has, for many, required an amplification of skill.
To recognize instructors giving it their all throughout the pandemic, two local school districts — Newport-Mesa Unified and Huntington Beach Union High — recently announced their selections for “Teacher of the Year.”
Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers picked two educators to receive the honor — Dennis Ashendorf, who teaches math at Back Bay/Monte Vista High School and Emily Matthews, a sixth-grade teacher at Davis Magnet school.
“The county does an excellent job acknowledging their teachers,” said NMFT President Tamara Fairbanks. “Both Dennis and Emily are just awesome educators, so I’m excited for both of them.”
HBHSUSD administrators on Tuesday surprised Fountain Valley High math teacher Aaron Tyson and Edison High School English teacher Lori Chlarson with surprise visits announcing the news.
As the winners from their districts, the four educators will be nominated for the Orange County Department of Education’s 2022 Teacher of the Year. Five finalists will be announced in April or May.
Education is a second-act career for Ashendorf, who had a background in engineering and setting up product lines for companies, including several start-up ventures, before he landed on teaching in 2002.
He has now logged nearly 18 years at Back Bay/Monte Vista High School, where he’s learned he has a knack for helping sometimes hard-to-reach alternative and continuation school students.
“I fit [lessons] to the student — where the student is, where they’re headed and what they are trying to do, and I’m really good at that,” he said. “Failure is not an option in alternative education. You’ve got to find a way to let them succeed.”
Ashendorf is one of a rare few who can say distance learning has actually increased his instructional game. Once a week, students meet for a video conference using only the audio function. From within their “black boxes,” he said, students are emboldened to speak more and take risks.
A self-professed nerd who loves taking deep dives into the theories and structures that undergird systems, Ashendorf said he sees the Teacher of the Year award as a nice affirmation but not something to boast about.
“You can’t go around bragging about it because then you’d become less of a teacher,” he said. “There are teachers who are more worthy, but I am worthy.”
During the course of her 13-year career in education, Matthews has taught students in the second, seventh and eighth grades, though she now teaches sixth grade at Newport-Mesa Unified’s Davis Magnet School.
She’s worn many hats as an educator, serving as a student support team coordinator, English Language coordinator, a Peer Assistance Leadership adviser and as a master teacher and mentor for UC Irvine and Vanguard universities.
Matthews also serves as a Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) coach responsible for mentoring, providing assistance and guidance to the PBIS school team, a role she says she finds extremely fulfilling.
In that role and as a PAL adviser, she works with student leaders on campus to address the social and emotional needs of all students and has seen the campus culture and morale among the student body and staff skyrocket as a result.
Tyson has spent the past seven years teaching math at Fountain Valley High School, after starting his teaching career at Marina two years prior. He also serves as technology resource teacher, a position that’s proven useful to teachers and students learning and working from home.
“I’m there to assist other teachers in implementing educational technology tools into their teaching practice,” he said. “Different pedagogical tools, but also how to implement things like iPads. We just got new technology bundles to reach our kids who are virtual.”
Tyson was surprised Tuesday when Fountain Valley Principal Morgan Smith and HBUHSD Supt. Clint Harwick visited his class to share news of the award.
“He’s selfless, generous, humble and has given so much,” Smith said. “He’s a new dad who spends a lot of his time creating videos for parents, students and staff that will help them navigate distance learning, and he does it with patience and grace.”
Hired by the district in 2000, Chlarson has spent her entire teaching career at Edison High School, where she teaches English and serves as the coordinator for the Center for International Business and Communications Studies (CIBACS).
The program integrates business strategies with language arts and social studies curriculum. Chlarson teaches the 10th-grade portion, which deals with product development. A former marketing and advertising professional, she described her role in the program as “a perfect fit.”
Some might say the same of Chlarson’s reputation as a top-notch educator at Edison.
“She is the quiet leader on campus,” said Principal Jennifer Graves. “You go into her class and the students feel safe to talk to her about anything. She creates an environment in her classroom where all students just want to be and succeed.”
Even during distance learning Chlarson sets aside time on Mondays to help students in virtual “breakout rooms” that supplement group instruction. She said she was “stunned” by Tuesday’s surprise announcement.
“As it sank in, I just felt really honored,” she said. “I think the coolest thing about it is just hearing from people — former students, kids who graduated way back when, teachers that I’ve gotten to know at other schools in our district. It felt like a big hug, which we could use right now.”
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