Two of five teachers named Friday as California Teachers of the Year work in Sacramento schools, and both say they're driven by a deep belief that every student can learn.
Fifth-grade teacher Shannan Brown of Thomas Edison Elementary School in the San Juan Unified School District and math teacher Kadhir Rajagopal of Grant High School in the Twin Rivers district were among five educators statewide selected for the honor.
Brown and Rajagopal, who each teach at high-poverty schools, said two keys to their success are developing relationships with students to create education-friendly environments and reaching out to parents for support.
"If kids see that I care more than just about how they do academically, then they feel safe and are motivated to do better," Brown, 37, said.
Rajagopal, 28, said he identifies a parent, grandparent, coach or relative who will help keep each student on track. He puts their phone numbers in his cell phone and calls often.
In a prepared statement released Friday, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said of the five Teachers of the Year: "They each have unique ways of teaching and thinking that inspire their students to love learning."
One of the five California teachers – Darin Curtis of Tierra del Sol Middle School in San Diego County – will represent California in the National Teacher of the Year competition. Beverly Gonzalez of Santa Fe Elementary School in Los Angeles County and Jennifer Kelly of Middletown Middle School in Lake County were also selected for the statewide award by the California Department of Education.
Rajagopal's students at Grant High say he never sits down during class.
"Teachers have to teach the way students want to learn by using their language," he said.
Rajagopal said he is concerned that the curriculum in schools is too broad and lacks depth. Because of that, he said, some teachers perform "drive-by instruction, or trying to get through the whole book using a pacing guide."
"That's not teaching," he said. "We need more in-depth mastery. If you have to sacrifice covering the whole book, you have to do that."
Brown said she is most concerned about the increased pressure on test scores. By focusing on multiple-choice tests, she said, problem solving and critical thinking can't be assessed.
"If teachers can't use that information in ways that can help them become better teachers, then why are we paying so much attention to it?" Brown asked. "The pressure is going to continue to get worse, but I think you will see teachers step up and say we don't value this."
Brown said one of the first things she does with her students is establish a link between education and their futures. She goes over average monthly bills and shows students the medium income for each education level.
"I show them that while they don't get paid to come to school now, they will get paid the rest of their lives based on their education," she said.
Rajagopal uses an education model he created to show other teachers what is working for him. He has a book on his best practices coming out in January.
"The underlying principle behind the model is for teachers to take personal responsibility for the students to succeed," he said.