Richards Named L.A. County Teacher of the Year

Cassandra Richards, a fourth and fifth grade literacy teacher at Addams Elementary School, was recently named one of 12 Los Angeles County Teachers of the Year. She now advances to statewide competition for California Teacher of the Year. She was named one of three Long Beach Unified School District Teachers of the Year this summer. Other LBUSD Teachers of the Year are Shehzad Bhojani, 6th-7th grade science teacher at Monroe; and Teri Lockerman, eight grade science teacher at Tincher. As a literacy teacher in the Long Beach Unified School District, Richards is a turnaround artist. She teaches struggling students who are two to three years behind in reading skills. She gets remarkable results, improving reading skills in students as much as three years in a single school year. Sometimes finding ways for her students to excel is as simple--and as demanding--as carefully assessing their academic skills to see if a student has not grasped a specific concept. Once she finds the key, learning takes off. In one case, for example, she discovered that a fifth grader was still struggling to recognize a few letters in the alphabet. "Once I knew that and could address it, his progress was extremely good," she said. Making the extra effort to get rapid, dramatic results is second nature to her. She connects with students and families--making frequent home visits or even delivering a back-to-school night welcoming speech in Spanish. She's willing to do whatever it takes to help students succeed. "She really knows how to motivate kids," said Addams principal Jill Rojas. "In her class, there's no such thing as a student who isn't motivated. Students really want to learn for her--that's her gift. They cheer for each other and encourage each other in her class. They never ridicule one another. They show respect. When they achieve a new reading benchmark, they run up to me on the playground and show me their papers. They're so proud of their improvement and just take off as learners in Cassandra's class. "She's a no-nonsense teacher," said Rojas. "She tells students you need to make up this much work to be at grade level. There's no time to play around. "She saves kids’ lives. She may never know how much of their success in life began in her classroom. She is diligent in getting results for her students." Richards is surprised when students, parents and co-workers notice that she does a great job inspiring students to do their best. "I'm just a teacher," she said. "That's what I do." "It’s not really an extra effort if it’s what you need to do to help a student learn," she said. "I think you have to be flexible or sometimes you miss your chance to reach someone." At Monroe, highly organized Bhojani builds his instruction around the slogan "Structure fosters creativity" as a means of balancing the many aspects of managing an effective classroom. "Each day there is a level of consistency, in regard to procedures," Bhojani said. "The students know the objective and what the agenda is for each day. They know where to look and what to do for the ‘warm up’ and ‘cool down’ every day. An element of surprise comes during the lesson, either with the anticipatory set or an activity that is incorporated into the guided practice or check for understanding." At Tincher, Lockerman came to the classroom after 10 years in the fashion industry. Her newfound love of teaching helps her identify with at-risk students struggling to find out what they can do. She never gives up on students who are expecting adults to give up on them, and her tenacity turns them around. "It has been an eye-opening experience to witness students seemingly ‘bloom’ right before my eyes when provided with a quiet, supportive, resourceful environment to study for a test, do homework, type a research paper or whatever else rests on their plate," she said. "These pivotal turns in students’ lives are lessons in courage and perseverance, and they teach me the importance of keeping a focused mind and an open heart to achieving the unexpected." The annual Teacher of the Year selection is designed to focus attention on excellence in teaching. Candidates for Teacher of the Year are required to submit a detailed application assessing their community involvement and philosophy of teaching. Finalists also take part in an interview presentation of their qualifications. Richards, Bhojani, Lockerman and other top local public school teachers who serve some of the 1.7 million students in Los Angeles County will be honored in the spring. Richards was chosen from a field of 54 finalists for L.A. County Teacher of the Year.