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Teachers of Year Share Insights

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

Kimberly Dueñas teaches English at Marshall Academy of the Arts, Ivy Gastelum teaches English at Cabrillo High School, and Katie Hickox teaches English at Millikan High School.

The three will be honored at a Los Angeles County Office of Education luncheon next week along with other teachers from throughout the county.

Kimberly Dueñas is new to Marshall this year after working with gifted and talented elementary school students and Reid High School students who need extra help prepping for the high school exit exam.  She believes in the power of encouraging others.

“The impact teachers have on the lives of their students is immeasurable.  The compassion my teachers granted me centers my obligation to extend that same regard to my students.  It is my moral compass, my gravity,” Dueñas said.

Helping students to realize their personal best through self-discipline and high standards is the greatest reward in teaching, said Dueñas, who recalled a struggling student at Reid.

“The real reward was in the watery eyes of Kevin, who hugged me upon hearing of his passing score, the faint hope of a high school diploma now a reality after having failed the exam seven times prior.  I recall an exasperated Kevin running into my classroom the morning of the exam begging me to review the thinking maps I had modeled in class to help the students organize the essay portion.  He said, ‘I can’t do it.’  I looked him in the eye and said calmly, ‘You can and you will.’”

She strives to create an environment at school that provides needed support to students who may lack support at home.

“As a child, school was my saving grace mainly because my teachers provided me the academic support I did not always receive at home.  My parents were divorced when I was in kindergarten due to my father’s substance abuse, and I was often a ‘latch-key’ kid while my mother struggled to make ends meet as a waitress.”

She takes a broad view of student success that reaches beyond her classroom.

“I open our doors to actively involve all stakeholders in student presentations and celebrations.”

Cabrillo Co-Principal Elio Mendoza decsribes Ivy Gastelum as having “a magnanimous and energetic personality” that is hard to miss.

“At first, students don’t know what to think about me,” Gastelum said.  “I don’t really look like a regular 46-year-old veteran teacher or mother of two teenagers.  I have spiky, bleach-blond hair and several piercings in each ear, a throwback to my college days writing for an LA-based punk rock magazine.  I’m also only 5-foot-1, but make up for it with a loud voice.  However, at an urban school, students respond to mutual respect, no matter how one appears.  Trust does not happen immediately, but once it is built, once the kids know that I honestly have their best interests at heart and see them as individuals, they will rise to my expectations.”

As a college student, Gastelum’s accidental enrollment in a teaching course opened her eyes to becoming a teacher.

“I learned lesson-planning techniques and had to develop a unit based around a self-selected novel.  I included art and music in my lessons, because I’d hated high school English, since answering questions at the ends of the chapters and listening to banter about literary merit had done almost nothing for my personal edification.  The students in class responded favorably.

“Now, in my 21st year of teaching, I still incorporate art and music into my lessons.  In fact, I’ve infused Multiple Intelligences Theory into my practice throughout my entire career.”

Gastelum is a lifelong resident of Long Beach who takes great pride in giving back to her own community.

One of the ways Gastelum gives back is through her leadership of Cabrillo’s AP?English Literature Club, which raises funds to enable students to attend local theater and opera productions, often for the first time in their lives.

“I cannot explain the joy of seeing 60 to 80 students, dressed to impress, stepping off a school bus into an elegant theater, viewing a play they’ve read and analyzed and know better than anyone else in the audience.

“I’m at home in an urban school setting, where the most needy can build on their successes and realize their dreams, where kids can be the first in their families to attend college, where students can walk across the stage toward opportunities they never knew existed.”

Katie Hickox joined the profession after several years as a newspaper reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican and the Orange County Register.  She did not grow up dreaming of becoming a teacher.

“I paid more attention to writing newspaper stories in an after-school internship than to what was assigned for the next day’s homework.  I daydreamed in class and wondered later why the math homework seemed so mysterious.  By junior year, I was a student adrift, a mediocre transcript fluttering in my wake.”

She credits a high school teacher with helping her to develop more fully her “academic stamina,” and, later, a routine assignment at the Register called her to teach.

“When I visited classrooms for a series of articles on Tustin elementary schools, a profound emptiness cloaked my heart.  The classroom was a world of purpose, of collaboration over competition, and a place of profound and spirited courage.  The teachers I saw were braver than I ever could be covering a fire or political scandal.  They spent their paychecks on classroom supplies and prizes.  Their daily sacrifices for their students made a desire for a byline and 300,000 readers seem trite.  They had to make so many decisions, the kind that don’t make the front page but that may well change a life.”

Guided by her determination to provide effective, differentiated instruction, she creates communities where every student can thrive.

“My days are guided by an idea of a favorite poet of mine, Robert Browning: Our reach must exceed our grasp, or what can our dreams be for?”