La Jolla public schools celebrate their Teacher of the Year

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After two years of quiet, socially distanced recognition, the five campuses of the San Diego Unified School District in La Jolla honored their Teachers of the Year at a May 10 dinner.

The event at Bella Vista Social Club & Cafe in La Jolla was an in-person celebration that has not occurred for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SDUSD Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino said the Teachers of the Year were selected by their peers for “their outstanding commitment to the students they serve.”

Once teachers are nominated by certified peers at their schools, the San Diego Education Association — the district’s teachers’ union — collects the nominations and gives schools ballots for voting by teachers in each location.

SDUSD’s La Jolla Cluster includes Bird Rock, La Jolla and Torrey Pines Elementary Schools, Muirlands Middle School and La Jolla High School. Here are their teachers of the year:

Nicole Ervin-Fugiel, Muirland Middle School

Muirland’s Middle School Teacher of the Year Nicole Ervin-Fugiel

(Courtesy of Nicole Ervin Fugiel)

Ervin-Fugiel, a seventh grade arts and media English teacher who calls her students “Mrs. E,” was eight of their 22 years of apprenticeship at Muirlands.

She said she was “delighted and deeply honored” to be named Teacher of the Year.

“I know how hard my colleagues work and I see their creativity, curiosity, positivity, problem solving and integrity on a daily basis,” she said. “To be recognized by such a great group of colleagues makes me feel very valued and valued.”

In this pandemic-struck third year, Ervin-Fugiel said she was “particularly impressed with how flexible and patient my students have been throughout the year and how excited they have been to be in the classroom together. I don’t think any of us will take that for granted again.”

Muirland’s principal Jeff Luna said Ervin-Fugiel is an incredible teacher who “creates a warm and caring environment for her students. Your students feel welcome, risk-taking, accepted as individuals, encouraged, supported and comfortable.”

“It’s really inspiring to see how Ms. E. and her students interact,” added Luna. “She is a leader and a real asset to our learning community.”

Jim Essex, La Jolla High School

La Jolla High School Teacher of the Year Jim Essex

La Jolla High School Teacher of the Year Jim Essex

(Courtesy of Jim Essex)

Essex, an English teacher, said being recognized as Teacher of the Year “feels good…I’m humbled. There are so many exceptional teachers out there.”

Essex, a longtime resident of La Jolla who has taught 12 of his 24 years in education at La Jolla High, said he loves teaching in his community, and teaching English in particular. “There’s nothing not fun about that,” he said. “It’s fun to see the spark in kids when they get something or when they enjoy something.”

Returning to teaching its students in person after having been largely virtual for the past two years has made Essex realize the importance of the face-to-face dynamic. “It was so beautiful and wonderful that the children came back and were so happy to come back,” he said.

LJHS Director Chuck Podhorsky said Essex is an integral part of the English department and all school staff.

The classroom atmosphere at Essex is “stimulating and encouraging for all students,” said Podhorsky, reflecting his commitment to “infuse all of his students with a love of reading and inquiry-based learning”.

Podhorsky said Essex “really loves the art of teaching and working with high school students [and] considers it his responsibility to find the best way to help each of his students maximize their academic potential.”

Melissa King, Bird Rock Elementary School

Bird Rock Elementary Teacher of the Year Melissa King

Bird Rock Elementary Teacher of the Year Melissa King

(Courtesy of Melissa King)

King has spent 16 of her 22 years teaching at Bird Rock Elementary. “I’m the guru of the fifth grade,” said King, who has always taught that grade.

Her vote for Teacher of the Year was “an honor, especially in this COVID time,” King said. “The staff is fantastic and everyone deserves this award.”

The school community is full of supportive parents and caring teachers who “go above and beyond,” she said. “It’s nice to be a part of it.”

King said she will remember how teachers helped each other support students when parents were unable to help on campus. She will also remember students’ resilience in adapting to near-daily changes in COVID protocols, she said.

Bird Rock principal Andi Frost said King is dedicated and enthusiastic and has “high expectations of every single child in her class.”

King “has integrity and teaches and encourages integrity with her children,” Frost added.

Courtney Sakai, La Jolla Elementary School

Courtney Sakai, La Jolla Elementary School Teacher of the Year

Courtney Sakai, La Jolla Elementary School Teacher of the Year

(Courtesy of Courtney Sakai)

Sakai, the education specialist at La Jolla Elementary, said, “It’s exciting to be recognized by your peers for your hard work.”

Her work supporting special education students at all grade levels means she is more focused on the special education itself, she said.

Sakai, who started at LJES as a kindergarten teacher 15 years ago but switched to special education three years later, said she loves “to give kids the opportunity to be successful. … Being able to instill in them that confidence and desire to succeed is really important.”

Sakai said she will remember “how flexible I had to be and how creative [I’ve been] to really do things and make up for such a strange time in our society.

LJES director Stephanie Hasselbrink said Sakai “is certainly among the most talented special education teachers,” building a relationship with students and empowering them to speak up for themselves.

She’s a “phenomenal educator,” Hasselbrink said, “and her stories give us all endless laughs. Our students thrive with their guidance and support.”

Jamie White, Torrey Pines Elementary School

Torrey Pines Elementary School Teacher of the Year Jamie White

Torrey Pines Elementary School Teacher of the Year Jamie White

(Courtesy of Jamie White)

White, a third-grade teacher, said “it’s been a challenge the last few years” and that the Teacher of the Year award “means a lot”.

White has taught various classes throughout her 17-year career at Torrey Pines Elementary and said she “loves our community support. One of my favorite things about teaching is the relationships I form with families, which last well into the students’ college years.

White said she will “remember how happy the students were to be back together [this year], although we had restrictions like masks and stall groups. It’s important to just be back in a reasonably normal environment.

TPES Director Nona Richard said White is a team player with long- and short-term planning skills and a “willingness to engage with colleagues”.

Richard said that White’s initiative this year to begin student-led awards has resulted in the school’s governance team expanding the program school-wide.

“For Jamie, TPES isn’t just a school or a place to work,” Richard said. “It really is her home. She cares deeply about the well-being of her colleagues and works tirelessly to help all children and adults alike.”

– Ashley Mackin-Solomon, Contributor to La Jolla Light, contributed to this report.

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