Get to Know the 2021 SUHSD Teachers of the Year!

Gregory Simpson

Chula Vista High School

How many years have you worked in education? How many years with the Sweetwater District?

I have worked for the Sweetwater District the last 10 years. I began at Montgomery Middle and transferred to Chula Vista High, where I have worked most of my career in the district.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education? 

I have been lucky to have several extraordinary teachers in my life that created atmospheres that were welcoming, energetic, and fun. I connected to the class because of this, regardless of the subject. These teachers’ daily attitudes, passion, and kindness inspired me to seek a career in education. My hope was that I could provide a place where a student would be able to go for an hour or two, five times a week, and be themselves, feel engaged and supported, and hopefully lighten their day a little.

What inspires you daily to do your best?

The people that I am surrounded by. My wife is the strongest person I know. She inspires me to work hard, to take advantage of opportunities presented to me, and never be afraid of accepting a challenge. My daughter inspires me to come first with a kind heart, to seek adventure, to never stop asking questions, and to ensure a world where people never lose the spark of learning. My parents inspire me to always look back and to remember the importance of our history and finding common ground with others.

How has this past year impacted how you view your profession?

The last year has showcased the resilience of students and parents. It has driven home the fact that our community fights for their education. I have students participating in my classroom, but they are also in doctor and orthodontist appointments, battling Wi-Fi, on bed rest from surgery, supporting their siblings in their classrooms, dealing with family emergencies or loss, in different countries or a combination of these all at the same time. And yet, they are in my classroom. The hardiness that the community has demonstrated by showing up and making education a top priority has made me want to fight that much harder for them to make it worth their time. This past year has shown me so much support for education and my peers have shown that same fight in revamping lessons, learning and utilizing new platforms, increasing modes of communication, supporting student’s emotional development as well as their cognitive development, and putting in a lot of extra training to show the community the same amount of support that they have given us.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your position?

Make sure that you do everything you are asking your students to do. In doing so, you will answer many of the questions that students will ask before they get a chance to ask them, you will know where to direct them, and you will know how much time each item will take. In the same way a chef tastes each step of the dish before putting it out, a teacher needs to sample each step to ensure the lesson builds upon itself and is cohesive the entire way through.

Additionally, use the first month to get to know your students as people and let curriculum come second. The first month is where norms and consistency for the classroom are being made. It will pay off ten-fold in using this time to build trust and create a community in your classroom where students feel valued, heard, and safe. Students will work harder for you because they know you care and you are invested, they will come to you quicker when they are unsure rather than falling behind, and everyone will be able to build off this support throughout the year.

Any fun hobbies or interests you’d like to share? 

Currently, my hobbies are thinking of fun games and activities for my daughter to play, cooking on my Big Green Egg, and online shopping. However, I am looking forward to being able to travel, go to live music venues and comedy shows, playing D&D, supporting local restaurants with friends, and shopping farmers markets and street fairs once again when it’s safe to do so.


Ivy Medrano

EHA

How many years have you worked in education? How many years with the Sweetwater District? 

I’ve worked in special education for 19 years.  I’ve been with SUHSD for almost 9 years.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education? 

After I graduated from college, I started working as a job coach with adults with developmental disabilities at Stein Education Center.  It had it’s challenges, but I loved working with the population. Next door to the adult program was the school for children with developmental disabilities and I loved interacting with them.  A year later, I became a Site Coordinator for one of the other Stein Adult Programs and next door were the transition students (18-22 year olds).  It was during that time that I decided that I wanted to continue working with individuals with developmental disabilities.  And because I understood what their expectations were when they age out and go to an adult program, I wanted to be able to help teach and nurture those skills while they are younger so that they can grow up to be successful adults in the community.  From day one, I felt a strong bond working with children and adults with developmental disabilities.

What inspires you daily to do your best?

My students inspire me to do my best daily. I want to create an atmosphere where my students are included and challenged, yet entertained.  As a mod/severe special education teacher I want to provide challenging opportunities for my students that takes them out of their comfort zone. I want to give them experiences that they’ve never had before or was told they couldn’t do.  As a transition teacher, I want to encourage my students to think about their future and take the necessary steps towards independence.  I want to provide them the tools towards becoming successful adults when they age out at 22 years old.

Working in moderate severe special education can be stressful and that’s why I am so thankful for my coworkers. My fellow special ed colleagues, from teachers, to the paraprofessionals inspire me daily as well.  The relationships that I’ve build with them gives me support and encouragement.  We share the same views and understandings about our students and our teachings.  It’s because of their positive feedback that I am able to continue teaching what I love.

Personally, my seven year old son has told me several times that because I’m mommy and a teacher, I should have all the answers even when I don’t.  But I want to teach my son that you don’t have to have all the answers to be your best.  You just have to show up and try.  I want him to know that even when you try, you might fail and that’s still OK.  I tell him it’s better to fail trying than to never try at all.

How has this past year impacted how you view your profession?

This past year has definitely been a roller coaster ride playing multiple roles from teacher, social emotional support, to tech expert. But this past year has made me realize how much I miss my students and my classroom. It’s a huge challenge being a special education teacher online where students are used to in-person connection and learning.  This past year has made me learn how to use more technology into my teachings.  I’ve learned how to differentiate my lessons through distance learning so that all my students regardless of learning abilities can access the same lesson but still be involved.  I feel like I work a lot more because I want to deliver the same meaningful lessons online as I would in person.   I’ve realized how much my students rely not only on the education aspect but also the social emotional support of being physically together. I try to make every online class fun, interesting, and engaging. I always begin class with small talks with every student so that they feel involved and listened to. I find topics that I know my students are interested in so that they can still feel connected.  I want them to feel that even though we are not physically together, they are still cared for and that I am still here for them.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your position?

It’s important to build connections with your students and families but it’s even more important to build relationships with your coworkers.  Working in moderate/severe special education is not always easy.  It can be stressful and tiring.  In times like that, you need your paraprofessionals, school psychologist, speech therapist, etc.  They are there to help and support you.  Look to them for advice.

Any fun hobbies or interests you’d like to share?

I am a baseball mom.  My son plays for little league and a travel ball team, so I rarely have a free day, but I love it.  I also recently became a plant mom.  I used to hate plants but this past year, I’ve changed my attitude about that and now I have close to 30 plants in my house.  I love learning about US and world history.  It’s because of that, it has sparked an interest in travel.  I love finding new places to explore with my husband.  I can’t wait to start traveling again.  I am also a comic-con, Star Wars, and Disney fanatic.


Kristin Elam

Sweetwater High School

How many years have you worked in education? How many years with the Sweetwater District?

I have been working in education for almost 30 years, 23 years as a teacher and 20 years in SUHSD.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education? 

I chose to go into education because I felt that it was one of the most effective ways to help move our society towards one that is more firmly grounded in equity and justice. My original plans focused on policy making or governmental work, but I ultimately decided that working with young people was a way to truly enjoy my daily work while also having the ability to work toward that bigger goal of a more equitable and just world.

What inspires you daily to do your best?

As cliche as it may sound, my students are what inspire me to do my best daily. They show up each day, often overcoming many obstacles to be there, so I feel that I owe it to them to do my absolute best to support them and help them grow.

How has this past year impacted how you view your profession?

I believe it has put a magnifying glass on inequities both systemic and within our profession. It has definitely highlighted the need to continue our anti-racism work districtwide as we reflect on our grading policies, curriculum, discipline, and all other areas.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your position?

Be prepared to continue learning and be open to feedback and advice. Strong teachers change and learn every year for their entire career!

Any fun hobbies or interests you’d like to share?

I’m an alum of the University of Colorado Boulder and a die-hard fan!


Marina Dillingham

Bonita Vista High

How many years have you worked in education? How many years with the Sweetwater District? 

I’ve been teaching for 33 years including this one, 29 of them in Sweetwater, LAUSD prior to that.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education?

My parents were both educators, my dad was a medical school professor in Argentina and my mom an English teacher. I grew up around teachers.  I taught Spanish in a private language school to pay my way through college but at the time teaching was not my goal.  I received a degree in English and wanted to be a writer.  However, after graduating I didn’t know what to do with my life and I was offered a position teaching French and Spanish at an inner city LA high school.  That first “real” job changed my life!  I realized that I loved teaching, and I’ve dedicated myself to it ever since.

What inspires you daily to do your best?

My students.  When they succeed, they inspire me to go create and design better experiences for them in my classes.  When they struggle, they challenge me to think outside the box to find a better way to reach them, to make them understand and help them grow.

How has this past year impacted how you view your profession?

It has shown me how essential we are to our society, regardless of the subject or age group we teach.  Every day we are bombarded with opinions, on social media, on the news, from our family and neighbors, about who, why, when we should go back to school.  From the president, to the mail carrier, everyone is dependent on us. During the pandemic, I believe teachers have been working harder than ever on weekends, evenings, even during our breaks, assiduously striving to offer our students the best possible learning experiences in spite of the situation.  It has given new value to my career choices and the efforts of my peers.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your position?

Love the kids!  Love your subject!  If either of those items is lacking, teaching is not the career for you. We spend too much time surrounded by teenagers and working on curriculum to be ambivalent about either.  Not loving your students or your subject makes you miserable and a poor teacher and that misery becomes very apparent to the students.  They lose interest in the subject and in their grades.  If the teacher doesn’t love the subject, why would they?  I would also tell new teachers to always keep learning, researching, and trying new things.  Learning and experimenting bring classes to life.

Any fun hobbies or interests you’d like to share?  

I love to travel, which should be obvious as I am World Language teacher.  Experiencing other cultures is my biggest passion.  Being grounded and stuck at home during the pandemic has been very difficult!  However, it has allowed me to overindulge in my other passions: flower gardening, cooking, reading and films.  I have been experimenting with bulbs and have been very successful with tulips this year. My neighbors call my house “the tulip house” now, and I’ve been told they walk or drive by every day to take pictures or just to see how the tulips are doing. Sadly they are almost done, but the ranunculus are looking fabulous!


Nicole Quick

Eastlake High School

How many years have you worked in education?

I have been in the Sweetwater District for the entirety of my 15-year teaching career.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education?

Like most teachers, I did have many teacher mentors in high school, but what initiated the spark is somewhat of an odd story. I remember sitting in my junior English class and being bored and looking around the room and I noticed empty spaces between student work that was hanging on the walls and I thought to myself “huh, it would have been cool if Mr. Pachillio put up our American Dream projects on that wall, and I wouldn’t have put that poster there, I would have put it on that other wall to fill that blank space, and that’s a nice plant  in the corner, but I would have put that over by his desk. I could decorate a classroom, maybe I should be a teacher?” and the rest is history. Reflecting on this now, I realize I was actually wanting to create a feeling of belonging to increase my own engagement in the class, and that’s exactly what I did and continue to strive to accomplish.

What inspires you daily to do your best?

What inspires me to do my best each and every day are my past students. I keep in touch with quite a few, and seeing their successes, their failures, their accomplishments, and their journeys really inspire me to keep doing what I am doing. Every student has touched my heart in a way I carry with me every day. They give me purpose.

How has this past year impacted how you view your profession?

This year in particular really helped expose my concern for the socio-emotional needs of students during a pandemic in regards to education. I made building relationships, without meeting face to face, a priority and made sure students felt supported and comfortable talking to me about their needs. This helped redefine my philosophy of teaching and wanting to focus on whole-student learning, not just English and academics. We are teachers of life, and this year was one for the books!

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your position?

The advice I would give a new teacher is to not be afraid to be vulnerable and your kids will do the same. This is how respect is earned, not demanded. Build relationships first, not just with students, but with other teachers.

Any fun hobbies or interests you’d like to share? 

I have a very obsessive personality, so I therefore have many interests. They range from scuba diving to scrapbooking. But my  number one obsession is my brand new French Bulldog puppy, Chewie Vuitton. He is my world.


Sarah Kesty

Castle Park Middle School

How many years have you worked in education? How many years with the Sweetwater District?

I have taught for 16 years, and this is my fourth year with SUHSD.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education?

I see teaching as a vehicle for facilitating positive change in the world, on many levels. I can be a positive support for each student, who will become positive support for others–an amazing ripple effect. I can also drive change for students with special needs by innovating approaches, advocating for their education, and changing our collective narrative about what it means to have a disability.

What inspires you daily to do your best?

I find inspiration when a student overcomes a challenge; whether they learn a new skill or uncover a strategy to overcome part of their learning disability, I love to problem-solve and coach my students! Their resilience, creativity, and ingenuity fuel me to keep pushing myself (and them) for excellence.

How has this past year impacted how you view your profession?

The pandemic highlighted a lot of challenges in the educational system, including the vastly differing resources available to students based on zip code or other demographics. Yet, the past year also shone a new light of appreciation of our craft. For example, I can still connect with kids, even though I can’t see them and our roles in students’ lives. They show up to Saturday school because they value connection and want to help each other.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your position?

This is the hardest job you will ever love. Embrace that you will be bad at lots of things, yet you are already “good enough.” You have more to learn than time to learn it, and that will keep you interested every day. Find your happy space in the paradoxes of teaching.

Any fun hobbies or interests you’d like to share?

I host the Executive Function Podcast, grow my own food, and love to cook. I write for fun and for a few publications. I’m incredibly thankful for my husband, family, and Castle Park Middle colleagues.