Del Mar district names all teachers ‘Teacher of the Year’

Teachers in Del Mar Union School District's Launch program.

The Del Mar Union School District teachers have opted to nominate all teachers for 2020-21 Teacher of the Year honors—an unconventional idea fitting for a most unusual school year.

As Del Mar teacher Kate Daniel wrote in her nomination letter, on March 13, 2020, the very definition of teaching changed. Heading into Zoom classrooms and distance learning for the first time last spring, what teachers initially thought may just last a couple of weeks ended up stretched to fall, kicking off a school year unlike any other.

“It’s been nearly a year since that Friday in March and, as educators, we have risen to challenges that existed far beyond our wildest imaginations,” Daniel wrote. “Not only have our students continued to receive a world-class, full-time, and in-person education, but we have expanded our incredible program to include an online option that is truly one of a kind. You can pretty much say, ‘We’re killing it’.”

Daniel has been with the district since 2008 and this year is teaching the sixth grade in Launch. Last year, she taught second grade at Ocean Air School, where this year she teaches Launch students from a classroom on campus.

As every year around this time nominations begin for teachers of the year, DMUSD teacher Julie Cunningham posted her suggestion on a teacher Facebook page: “What if this year we were all just teachers of the year?” The response was overwhelmingly supportive.

After meetings with site reps and representatives from the Del Mar California Teachers Association (DMCTA), everyone was on board, tapping Daniel to pen the nomination letter as a unified letter in support of each other. She wrote the letter on the 100th day of school for Del Mar students, reflecting on the accomplishments and struggles of a “remarkable year.”

The staff at Sycamore Ridge School,

From the beginning, Superintendent Holly McClurg advocated for students to be back in school: “She really believed in that,” Daniel said. The district opened for five-day-a-week in-person school on Aug. 24, one of the only districts in the county to offer full-time in-person school and a full distance learning program: 2,652 students chose in-person learning and 1,237 students opted to remain in distance learning with Launch.

There have been a lot of adaptations and innovations to meet the challenges of both in-person and distance learning programs.

Kevin Cunha, president of the DMCTA, said being a small district with small class sizes, Del Mar has been fortunate to be able to do some things that larger districts could not.

As they developed Launch, teachers who did not feel safe returning to campus were able to go into that program. For those on-site, Cunha said the district and the union worked to mitigate teachers’ safety concerns with everyone having an understanding that in-person school was what was best for the students. While Del Mar has had positive cases and in-person classes have been quarantined, all reported cases have been the result of community exposure and there has been no transmission in school.

The last unknown is the vaccines, which became available to teachers last weekend.

It has not been easy but Cunha said it is much better now than it was back when the year began. As a PE teacher in the Launch program, Cunha teaches his 600 students virtually, working to make it as close to real PE as possible which sometimes means taking students on trail runs around San Diego with his Go Pro camera. One of the biggest obstacles he has to overcome is that not all students have the same situation at home—some are getting their activity done in the kitchen or a nook in the living room, some have a backyard, others an apartment balcony.

Teachers have learned a lot over the year about what works and what didn’t work and continued to make refinements.

“You’re learning as you go along… you’re learning it together with your students,” Daniel said. “In a way, it brings you closer together as a class.”

Not physically being with her students and not being able to make a connection with them has been the hardest part for Daniel.

Karen Harp, a second grade teacher at Ocean Air School said teaching in person this year has been an “adventure and an exercise in flexibility” but she is so grateful for the opportunity to be with her students.

“Even though faces are hidden with masks, seeing eyes light up with excitement, joy and understanding is always priceless,” Harp said. “The hardest thing about being on site was adjusting to all of the new routines and protocols. Being isolated in our own stable cohorts has been something different for both teachers and students.”

In person teachers have also had to be creative to in how they engage their students—Harp said teaching through a mask is hard on their voices, makes it more difficult to be heard and limits the use of facial expressions. It has also meant using dividers and face shields so they can be close enough to provide meaningful instruction or moving outdoors to reduce the amount of time students are in an enclosed space.

“We have all gone above and beyond for our students and our school communities,” Harp said.

As Daniel wrote in her letter, all teachers are coming at this challenging school year with their own unique circumstances and making their own personal sacrifices. Many are parents and are balancing homeschooling their own children. Some face medical challenges that put them at higher risk each time they walk onto campus. Some have spouses and partners who are essential workers on the front lines, others live alone and have lost their community network. Some have lost loved ones.

“We have learned how to do our jobs in completely new ways,” Daniel said. “We have worried about students, we have stayed after school to help them catch up. We have lent an ear to worried parents, to teary colleagues, and some of us have provided tech support and tips to our colleagues who are new to the Zoom ‘mumbo jumbo.’”

As Cunha said, Daniel’s words summed up perfectly the hard work Del Mar teachers have put in this year, weathering the storm together. It would be impossible to point to just one person this year who deserves to be recognized.

“We’re all proud of each other and want to lift each other up,” Cunha said.