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County Honors Local Teachers of Year

Three outstanding Long Beach Unified School District teachers were recently selected as 2011 Teachers of the Year.

One of the three also became a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year and advances for consideration as California Teacher of the Year.

Lisa Gaa teaches fourth and fifth grade at Longfellow Elementary School, Nicole Jackson teaches kindergarten at MacArthur Elementary School, and Jamie Vallianos-Healy teaches fourth grade at Tincher Preparatory School.

Jackson was named for the L.A. County honor.  All three were recently honored at a luncheon hosted by the Los Angeles County Office of Education for top teachers throughout the county.

Lisa Gaa begins each school year by using a “blank slate” in determining the best approach to take with each student.

“Although I have a variety of information about my students from their previous teachers, I make it a rule for myself not to look at any of that data until after the first week of school.  I like to get to know my students with a blank slate, so that they each have the opportunity to show me the kind of students they want to be.

“This scenario happens countless times year after year, where certain students will be labeled with a reputation for bad behavior, but for me, they aren’t a problem.  I attribute my ‘blank slate rule’ to students being able to make the shift of choosing positive actions and behaviors.”

Gaa’s high expectations are part of her successful classroom management.

“My students thrive on the structure and discipline I provide in my classroom.  They like that I care enough to tell them ‘No’ sometimes, and to teach them how to make better choices.  My principal has told me, ‘Your students work hard because they want to make their teacher proud.’  Proud is the perfect word for how I feel about my students, and my profession.

“Other teachers often compliment me on my students’ achievement.  They ask me, ‘How do you do it? What are you doing that I’m not?’  My first answer is that I directly involve the students in the process of learning.  Each student in my room knows exactly what their goals are and how they will get there.  I also teach through music and dance whenever I can, to meet the needs of students with different learning modalities.  I am constantly coming up with ‘tricks’ that my students can use to remember the information.”

She also stresses the importance of learning opportunities outside of the classroom.

“I get my students actively involved with our local recycling team and beach clean-up organization.  My students and families enjoy taking part in these environmental improvements during school and on weekends, because they have a direct effect on their community through fundraising, health consciousness and beautification.”

For Gaa, teaching offers rewards she could not imagine receiving in any other occupation.

“Working with children is the most rewarding career possible.  I am always motivated and energetic about coming to work.  The smiles on kids’ faces when they learn something new, get a good grade on a test, get an answer to a burning question, or create a project they are proud of, is what makes the purpose of my life as a teacher joyous and complete.”

Nicole Jackson believes that she was born to be a teacher, but she took a different route than many others in the profession.

“It seems that many of my colleagues come from families of teachers.  I do not.  In fact, when I called to tell my father that I had decided to change my major from accounting to child development in the hopes of becoming a teacher, I could hear the disappointment in his voice.  I also remember him offering to pay me my offered teacher salary if I would turn down my first teaching job in an unsafe neighborhood.  I understood his concern for me, but I am so thankful that I followed my heart and especially grateful for my experience with the children there.”

Jackson used some of those early classroom experiences to focus on critical components of the environment she wanted to create for her kindergarten students.

“Everyone knows what is expected of them when they arrive.  The routine is predictable and it reassures my young learners.  They know which subject is coming up next and how we will proceed together.

“Our classroom is a joyful place where every child’s voice is heard.  We sing and celebrate together.”

Students respond well to the structure she provides them.

“The growth my students make in one year is staggering.  I have many students who start the first day not able to hold a pencil and they end the year writing four sentences on one topic.  Although each child’s academic growth is different, every child walks out my door having succeeded to the best of his or her ability.”

She credits the process of earning National Board Certification for helping her to strengthen her skills as a teacher.

“This required an honest look at myself as a teacher.  It was difficult to sometimes admit that I could have done better in some areas but it was this honest self-reflection that helped me become more confident in my ability.  This was a time of great personal growth.”

Before the bell rings each morning, Jackson has a clear vision of what she will accomplish.

“My goal each morning is to be a teacher who inspires children so they want to share what they were taught that day.  A teacher who celebrates a child’s gifts even when they are  not attached to academic performance.  And to be a teacher who loves and respects her students and embraces and values their diversity.”

Jamie Vallianos-Healy began her teaching career in another school district.

“I was overwhelmed with the task.  I walked into class that first day, 24 years old, ready to get their eager little minds engaged.  I couldn’t have been more naive.”

Three years later, after determined study as part of an internship program that helped her develop her skills as a teacher, she came to LBUSD.

“When hired, I remember walking through my new school.  There were fish tanks in the halls and pictures of students on the walls.  I felt like this was a place where education was prized and the spirit of learning permeated the halls.”

Vallianos-Healy took that feeling she had about her new school and amplified it in her classroom.

“Believing that the greatest obligation of my profession is to promote an intrinsic love of learning to students, I strive to create exciting and interesting assignments that engage their spirit as well as their minds.  Having students work artistically along with the academic learning they do all year allows them to come away from elementary school with an appreciation of something new and the desire to learn more.

“I always remind students that I am there not to provide answers but to provide guidance so they can find the answers themselves.  Students need the opportunity to create meaning for themselves and find connections across the content areas.”

She believes that establishing strong connections with families helps parents create opportunities for their children to maximize their learning.

“At back-to-school night, I tell families that we are in a partnership together and they know they can come to me at any time.  I model this by being available by phone, email and before or after school.”

TOP TEACHERS -- Local teachers of the Year Nicole Jackson, Jamie Vallianos-Healy and Lisa Gaa were honored among Los Angeles County's best.