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Teachers of the Year Motivate, Challenge

Three outstanding Long Beach Unified School District teachers recently were named 2001 Teachers of the Year. Patricia Walker, special education teacher at Alvarado Elementary School; Diane Naegele, history and English teacher at Jefferson Leadership Academies; and Roberta Patterson, visual arts teacher at Millikan High School, will be guests of honor at the Los Angeles County Office of Education Teachers of the Year Luncheon this spring. Patricia Walker is known for being relentless in raising expectations for students, and providing meaningful learning experiences. "Like any other students, disabled children have the urge to explore, to dream, and perhaps more than the others, to understand their position in a complex system," Walker said. "As their teacher, I have made a commitment to help them navigate the difficult paths they face. I want them to leave here thinking there is nothing they cannot do." To accomplish this, Walker takes a pragmatic approach. "It is my job to make general education curriculum and concepts accessible to my students with disabilities," she said. "So I bombard them with grade level curriculum, then see what sticks and has meaning for them, given their unique life experiences." Though her methods require extra flexibility, the rewards in student achievement and growth justify the approach. "My lessons are kid-driven. This makes advanced planning a little difficult, but it is obvious to anyone who enters our classroom that real learning is taking place," she said. "Who would ever expect children with moderate to severe disabilities to understand the conflict between American patriots and Hessian soldiers, much less act out the battle? Who would expect to enter a room where some children must still be fed and diapered and find a torn-paper representation of Van Gogh's famous night sky dominating an entire corner?" Her students are well positioned to continue their learning. "This legacy is what I endeavor to pass on to my students," Walker said. "I want to guide them, as my teachers guided me, confident that what they know has value, that what they think has importance, and that what they communicate will be heard." Diane Naegele draws inspiration from an unusual source--her grandson, Christopher. "Every little thing that he learns--from saying 'aye' for 'yes,' to figuring out how to make musical sounds on a harmonica, to learning how to catch a ball--is met with great rejoicing on his part," Naegele said. "For Christopher, learning is equated with jubilation. I believe that somewhere inside each of my students is that same innate desire to learn. My job is to lead my students to uncover that desire and allow them to grasp the jubilation of learning again." Naegele likens her role to that of a master chef, table setter and server at a banquet--all rolled into one. "In education as with food, when you want someone to try something new, presentation is everything," she said. "My lessons have to appeal to the students' senses so they are willing to partake in the learning. I use a lot of group and interactive hands-on activities, and I try to move students toward higher-order thinking skills whenever possible." Naegele believes all students are important human beings, regardless of their skills. "I make a point of shaking hands with each student every day so they know that I think they are important," she said. "If students get a sense they are important, then they are on their way to succeeding in school." A fifth grade student from Naegele's first year of teaching in 1985 is now teaching fourth graders in Orange County. "She tells me that I am the one factor most responsible for influencing her to become a teacher," said Naegele. "Now that's what I call a great contribution." Roberta Patterson has a clear vision of what works best for her students. "If I were to capsulize my educational philosophy, the words 'value' and 'respect' would take precedence above all others," she said. "The educational needs and talents of all students must be recognized, valued and respected in a nurturing and supportive educational community." By providing that environment, she feels she is able to make lasting contributions to the lives of her students. "I feel the greatest contribution a teacher can make is one of dedication and commitment," she said. "My goal is to help each student discover their passion and nurture their gifts." To help them toward that goal, Patterson displays positive slogans in her classroom to inspire students and challenge their attitudes. Her favorite reads, "All of us are gifted, some just open their packages earlier." "I sincerely hope that all my students discover their gifts and apply the skills and knowledge they have learned in a real life context," she said. "The visual arts curriculum that I love to teach is simply the vehicle we ride to learn about life." Patterson enjoys a reputation for motivating students. She often sees students who find it difficult to stop working on their projects at the end of class and want to stay longer. "I enjoy teaching and sharing my creative artistic talents with my students," she said. "What I enjoy most about teaching is helping my students realize their latent talents and abilities. Students need encouragement and positive role models. I hope that in some small way I can be the spark that ignites their imaginations. When you feel good about who you are and what you can do, your life becomes a shining star, a beacon to those in darkness."