Teacher of the Year: ‘My passion will always be working with children in poverty’
Each week, Huntington Beach resident Natalie Elliott spends 10 to 12 hours driving to teach sixth-graders at 92nd Street Elementary School in Watts.
Her colleagues believe she probably could have gotten a teaching job in Orange County. But the 33-year-old teacher, who first taught in 109th Street Elementary School, also in Watts, has worked in the south Los Angeles neighborhood for 11 years now.
“She’s special,” 92nd Street’s assistant principal, Agustin Garcia, said. “She builds that trust with students and goes beyond the call of a normal teacher. That says a lot about how she’s been dedicated to Watts.”
Watts schools often experience high teacher turnover, according to Garcia.
Elliott’s commitment to its students over the years made her deserving of a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year recognition in September.
Elliott was one of 16 county teachers honored with the title and chosen to compete for the state designation, the 2017 California Teacher of the Year.
Although Elliott was not selected for the state title earlier this month, her mission as a teacher remains unchanged.
“My mom always said education is one of most powerful tools you’ll ever have,” Elliott said. “If I could teach kids in inner cities to become successful in academics and to give back, then I would have done my job.”
While the elementary school teacher was raised in Huntington Beach, she had a connection with Los Angeles County, having grown up with parents who worked there as public defenders.
She said her parents always encouraged her to help those less fortunate, which led her to take hold of different volunteer opportunities like coaching cheer at Edison High School in Huntington Beach and becoming a leader for UCLA UniCamp, a program that exposes urban children to the peaceful outdoors.
“I always watched, respected and admired her,” Elliott’s older brother, Michael, said. “Even when she was a little kid, she said she wanted to be a teacher. It might not seem typical for the older person to learn from the younger person but, in reality, we learn from the younger generation often.”
Elliott said her time spent with inner-city children at UniCamp led her to pursue a teaching job in Watts.
But her first year teaching the second grade at 109th Street Elementary School was imperfect.
She had a few challenging students, including boys who would scream, start arguments and distract others.
She brought the class together by doing community-building exercises, which taught them how to give compliments to each other and work as a team through dance, music and art activities.
“Our kids come to us with their own stories every day,” Garcia said. “Like, they didn’t have dinner last night or their uncle died in a drive-by last night. As a teacher, you have to be prepared for that and be culturally sensitive.”
Elliott, a Fountain Valley High School graduate, studied at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa for two years before transferring to UCLA, where she first earned a bachelor’s in history and Chicano studies and later her teaching credentials.
She’s also earned a master’s in educational leadership from Concordia University in Irvine in hopes of stepping into more of an administrative role in schools someday.
“I’m very eager to create change at a higher level,” Elliott said. “My passion will always be working with children in poverty.”