Casa Loma Elementary School kindergarten teacher Kristina Merrick and Mojave Elementary second and third grade teacher Lisa Massee were named Kern County Teachers of the Year at a ceremony Tuesday evening.
The awards, which are facilitated by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office, honored 54 county educators exemplifying the very best that teaching has to offer.
“These teachers have dedicated themselves to a life of learning,” said Ann Georgian, director of school-community partnerships at KCSOS.
Such is the case for Massee, whose jaw dropped when it was announced she was a finalist. Colleagues at her district praised her for building relationships with students and parents, and going above and beyond the requirements of the job.
“Lisa not only provides her students with an excellent education; she fuels their dreams; she gives them hope; she inspires and motivates them to achieve new levels and she holds them to unbelievably high standards,” Georgian said. “In other words, she does not give up.”
At 22-years old, Massee was an out-of-work single mom with no car and no support. She found a job as a secretary, but lost it. As she was crying in her car, she decided she would go to college to find a job that would allow her to spend more time with her daughter: teaching.
“From that point forward, nothing would deter me,” Massee said.
But Massee is no ordinary teacher. She started an after-school STEAM program in her Mojave district. When she found out that some students couldn’t attend because they faced transportation barriers, she launched an after-school program at their low-income apartment complex.
“We are working with real children – not statistics,” Massee said. “We cannot afford to lose any of them.”
Merrick, who viewed school as a child as “an escape from an abusive home,” wants to provide a sanctuary to students, she said.
On any given day, Merrick's kindergarten students are singing chants, nouns, verbs and adjectives or engaging in collaborative conversations while providing evidence for their arguments.
“Her classroom is full of excitement, engagement, and energy on a daily basis,” Georgian said. “Merrick believes that failing forward and making mistakes is how we grow. Students who never take risks won’t have the opportunity to fail. Failing is learning.”
Misty Higgins, a sixth grade teacher at Old River Elementary, was selected as an alternate teacher of the year recipient should either Massee or Merrick be unable to apply for California Teacher of the Year.
Higgins insists students collaborate, ask questions and explore. She views herself as a facilitator and guide, rather than a lecturer, Georgian said.
One student of hers said that in other classes “you get in trouble if you talk. In here, you get in trouble if you don’t talk.”
Along with the three big winners, 51 other teachers from around the county were honored, all of whom made substantial contributions to education.
Carrie Morgan, a West High School teacher, took time to provide a terminally-ill student at-home instruction.
Brenda Mayer, a Downtown Elementary School teacher who Georgian described as “a real tough cookie” on the outside, routinely tutors kids in math before school, then spends her afternoons coaching volleyball and track teams. (In the interest of full-disclosure, Mayer’s husband, Steven, works for The Californian.)
Tony Napier has been teaching social studies and government at North High School so long that he can count his boss, Principal Mark Balch, as a former student and player on the baseball team he coached.
Both Napier’s parents worked in education, his father as a West High School teacher and his mother as a North High School office worker. Education, it seems, runs in his blood.
And that was the theme of the evening. That education isn’t a career, but a calling.