Students from Juliet Thorner Elementary School and Browning Road STEAM Academy are going to have to buy several shiny red apples because teachers from both schools were named winners of the 2018-19 Kern County Teachers of the Year.

Sixth-grade teacher Germaine “Gigi” Maurer from Juliet Thorner Elementary School and third-grade teacher Valerie Perez from Browning Road STEAM Academy in McFarland are now eligible to apply to move on to the California Teachers of the Year program later this year. An alternate, Flor Gonzalez, a dual-immersion Spanish kindergarten teacher at Nueva Vista Language Academy in Delano, was also selected.

Finalists were announced at a reception hosted by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools at the Bakersfield Museum of Art to honor the 52 Kern County teachers nominated for the award by their schools and districts.

"Complete shock. Elated. Honored. Excited to tell my students," were the first words out of Maurer's mouth.

"I'm ecstatic. ... It's such a privilege to be a teacher and to serve the students in our county," echoed Perez. She is the first teacher from McFarland Unified School District to win the award. 

Both received a check worth $500, while Gonzalez was awarded one worth $250.

Maurer is a mentor for new teachers in the district, the grade-level chairperson at her school and a coach of championship student teams in Oral Language and National History Day competitions, KCSOS officials said during the ceremony.

"It's a great opportunity to just really brag about the teaching profession, something I've loved for 29 years that never has gotten old," she said. "Every year is a great year."

After visiting her classroom, judges said, “This was one of the most impressive visits I've been on just for the fact that there was greatness going on in the classroom; that greatness seemed understated because being that great had become expected and the norm among the students."

In Perez's classroom, she incorporates science, technology, engineering, arts and math so that students gain opportunities to connect their skills in a much more engaging way, KCSOS officials said. She has had over 20 innovative STEAM projects funded, and she was a national semifinalist in the Farmers Insurance Dream Big Teacher Challenge vying for a $100,000 educational grant.

"I feel that all students should have a right to learn science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics," Perez said. "It shouldn't just occur after school, it shouldn't just be reserved for Saturdays, it should occur Monday through Friday every single day."

"The highest-quality STEAM instruction I’ve seen in the primary grades," judges' comments read. "The kids were engaged in complex critical thinking and design processes collaboratively and could articulate what they were learning and why."

Gonzalez, who grew up as a student in bilingual education, relates to what her students face as second language learners. Every year, she finds ways to challenge students so they continue to improve, no matter their skill level.

“I was only in her room for 20 minutes, and I feel as though my comprehension of Spanish improved,” one judge said.

When she heads to the state competition, Maurer said she will share why being a teacher is similar to being an artist.

"They have to paint, so to speak, in different types of colors and use different mediums to reach children who come to them in various stages of learning gaps, emotional issues, behavioral issues," she said. "They have to learn to adapt and bring in all their tools, like an artist, to create something beautiful." 

Perez said she will push the message that "Teachers are amazing and they do this incredible work." 

Malaika Bryant, director of educator development and data support for the KCSOS, said all three women are passionate, innovative and student-centered.

"They know what their students need and they do what it takes to make that happen," she said. "To me that's the hallmark of a quality teacher."

In case those in attendance needed to be reminded why it is important to acknowledge teachers in the community, Kobi Yamada's children's book, "Because I Had a Teacher," was read during the ceremony.

"Because I had a teacher, I discovered that there are lots of ways of being smart.

"Because I had a teacher, I have whole new worlds to explore.

"Because I had a teacher, I love to learn."

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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