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Kern County announces its three teachers of the year finalists

It's always a good year to recognize excellence in the field of teaching, but this has been a year when even veteran educators have faced the biggest hurdles of their career.

"No one needs a reminder that the past 14 months have been challenging," said Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow during a virtual ceremony recognizing Kern County’s Teachers of the Year on Thursday.

The three finalists this year — Jason Spitzer, Jolie Brouttier and Richard Ribaudo — discussed the holistic approach they took to teaching and caring for their students during a year when the usual benchmarks didn't quite make sense. All three teachers are now eligible to apply for the California Teacher of the Year program and the two most competitive applications will be submitted to the California Department of Education.

"These amazing honorees represent excellence in teaching from Kern’s school districts and are reflective of the education heroes who are working diligently to continue to help our students achieve during these unprecedented times,” said Malaika Bryant, director of educator development & data support at KCSOS.

Spitzer, the English department head at Desert Junior-Senior High School in Muroc Joint Unified School District, said that when he first began teaching eight years ago he was very focused on the content. But over time, and this year especially, he's become more focused on helping his students shape a better society. He said it was an extremely tough year out in the Mojave Desert.

"This year wasn’t about the content, but the human," he said. "My students never gave up."

He has created an innovative leadership program that teaches students about leadership, teamwork and community through a course where they plan projects on campus and in the community.

Brouttier, a first grade teacher from Downtown Elementary in Bakersfield City School District, said that she doesn't feel like she can capture her students' minds until she has captured her students' hearts. For the nine years she's been a teacher, she works hard to make personal connections not just with students but with their families. She makes sure they have what they need, whether it's a backpack or a Thanksgiving dinner.

She said that even during a year as gloomy as this one, she felt like it was important to be a positive force for her young students.

"Every day you have to show up with a positive attitude," she said. "You are their sun. You are their light. They are going to reflect whatever it is you portray whether you’re standing up in a classroom or showing up on a computer screen."

Ribaudo, a physical education teacher at Sierra Middle School in Bakersfield City School District, changed the curriculum to focus more on health and wellness — something that he says may stick around after the worst of the pandemic fades.

He creates detailed digital lessons and daily workout videos and digital lessons, but it's not just Sierra Middle School students who like them. The videos have been popular among students at other schools and even among teachers. The lessons include a balance of information about health, social-emotional, and physical activities. 

Ribaudo also took advantage of this year to create an esports team to help students connect and play in a new way.