Teachers of Year Share Insights

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

Julianne Beebe teaches English at Poly High School. Courtney Venema teaches fourth grade at Longfellow Elementary School. Michelle Fennell teaches history, drama, Spanish and physical education at John Muir Academy.

Venema earned the Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year honor and advances for consideration as California Teacher of the Year.
The three were honored at a recent Board of Education meeting, and at a Los Angeles County Office of Education luncheon along with other teachers from across the county.

Julianne Beebe begins each school year with a vivid simile.

“I imagine an enormous wooden ship, beached on white sand, with my new group of students and me heaving it into the ocean. We fearlessly jump on board and set out on the journey of our year together. And sometime just before winter break, we seem to hit smooth water, each of us owning our individual roles and coming together like an intricate human puzzle when necessary.”

She remembers clearly the moment when she saw the possibilities of what she could accomplish in the classroom.

“The day I fell in love with the job was the day I watched my students trickle into class, stop by the cabinet to grab their writing journals, and begin responding to the daily prompt I had written on the board, without needing any verbal direction whatsoever. Suddenly it dawned on me that I had put a learning structure in place and my students were responding. Wow, I thought. What else could I train them to do? What else could I show them is possible?”

Her approach to teaching is guided by a simple observation.

“For years I’ve posted the following quote, attributed to Plato, above my classroom door: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ My teaching philosophy is grounded in the belief that not only can every student learn, but that every student matters. So much about effective teaching hinges on making sure one’s students feel validated and believe that they deserve to achieve.”

Courtney Venema began her teaching career as a resource specialist without prior employment as a classroom teacher.

“I struggled, failed, learned and improved during my three and a half years in that position. Ultimately I believed that in order to be an effective support to students and teachers, I would need experience teaching a self- contained class.”

Following that experience in a fourth grade classroom, she applied to become a GATE/EXCEL (gifted and accelerated) teacher to further challenge herself and become an even stronger teacher.

“Again, I found myself faced with a tough learning curve, but with time and professional development, I became more confident in my abilities to challenge advanced learners. It was during that time that I developed a passion for teaching gifted learners. I found that the way they thought and processed information was just as fascinating to me as students with learning disabilities. Meeting their educational needs was just as challenging as meeting the needs of students with an IEP, or students in a general education class.”

Her own path in the profession has helped her to connect more easily with students.

“For every teacher, seeing student success and achievement is one of the greatest parts of the job. However, even more rewarding for me is seeing my students embrace and find joy in the challenges and messiness of learning. I love when they openly state that they are confused and need clarification, or they want a little more time to try to figure something out on their own before hearing from others.”

She considers herself a lifelong learner and is fascinated with how people learn.

“I treat all students fairly and try to encourage them to treat others the same way. I am passionate about learning and challenging all of my students to do their best.”

Michelle Fennell approached the classroom by knowing the kind of teacher she didn’t want to become.

“As a young child, I would have told you that teaching would have been my last choice for a profession. Many of my teachers had little patience for my short attention span and day dreaming and had difficulty dealing with my kinesthetic learning style. I often felt overlooked and felt as though no one saw my potential. These experiences with teachers led me to view the teaching profession negatively.”

But after some successful teaching experiences as a camp counselor during a summer vacation in high school, she changed her appraisal.

“As I entered my senior year and began to apply to college, I declared liberal studies as my major and planned to be the teacher that I had never had: a teacher that gives students multiple chances and never puts them down, a teacher who looks for strengths in all her pupils, and a teacher who takes a personal interest in her students.”

Fennell follows through with precise accommodation to each student’s way of learning. Her teaching relies on helping students to make the most of their opportunities.

“I want all students I teach to benefit from an outstanding education, and I challenge students to meet high expectations. I believe none of my students are average. They are all capable of greatness, and I push them to be the best, academically and socially. I feel a sense of accomplishment when my students achieve their best and are model citizens for the community around them.”

LBUSD TEACHERS OF THE YEAR — Julianne Beebe, Courtney Venema and Michelle Fennell.