For people keeping a close eye on local schools, Santa Clara County's recognition of two Mountain View teachers was a long time coming.
Last month, the county's annual Teacher of the Year award ceremony celebrated the work of Mountain View High School teacher Sarah Block and Bubb Elementary School teacher Kathy Patterson. Both teach in schools where student backgrounds range from low-income families who don't speak English at home to affluent, well-resourced families seeking enrichment, which often leads to the huge gaps in academic performance many see as an intractable problem.
But neither Block nor Patterson see gaps in performance as a fact of life, and have worked overtime throughout their careers to get students up to speed or keep them from falling behind. Along with long hours, colleagues interviewed by the Voice say the two have gained huge respect from both the students and the staff, and have led the way on new initiatives and major changes in the classroom, showing flexibility as changing state standards shifted the ground beneath their feet.
Recipients of the county's annual awards are nominated by fellow teachers and, in the case of the Mountain View Whisman School District, a committee selects the finalist based on a list of criteria. Coincidentally, this has led to Bubb teachers receiving the award for three straight years. Second-grade teacher Emily Campion received the award in 2016, followed by first-grade teacher David Franklin in 2017.
Both Block and Patterson were recognized at a county award ceremony on Oct. 22 at the Campbell Heritage Theatre.
Putting avid learners on track
After joining Mountain View High School nearly three decades ago, Sarah Block quickly found herself in the driver's seat of a major undertaking: making sure students who are underrepresented in colleges and universities are on track to get college acceptance letters.
The goal was a major undertaking that remains a top priority, as district officials push to get as many students as possible to fulfill the requirements to get into University of California and California State University schools. State data shows that the demographics were roughly the same when she undertook the task in 1990, but the network of support for these students was tenuous at the time.
"Right when I started teaching at Mountain View the school identified we needed to make some changes so the students, who would be our first-generation college students, were indeed going to college," Block said.
Steve Hope, a former district administrator who was principal of Mountain View High at the time, told the Voice that he and Block got to work on finding a way to support those students. Shortly after starting, Hope said the school discovered a fairly new program called AVID -- short for Advancement Via Individual Determination -- in San Diego, and sought to emulate the success schools were having in Southern California. It helps that the superintendent at the time, Don Philips, had just relocated from San Diego and was familiar with the program.
Hope said he remembers how Block, with the help of teacher Joy Hellman, spent an "enormous" amount of time going to the middle schools and junior high schools, interviewing students, talking to counselors and poring over test scores to identify the kinds of students who, with a bit more help, could achieve the dream of going to college. The result was a comprehensive AVID program that enrolls hundreds of students each year and continues to this day.
"They spent a lot of time identifying, recruiting and working with the kids and the parents," Hope said. "I am very proud of what they have accomplished."
Hellman, who Block described as her sister in teaching over the years, said Block has built a strong relationship with her students, who always seem to be in her classroom during after-school hours. She said Block also has a penchant for trying new things in the classroom without fear, adopting new technologies -- for example, teaching kids with laptops when it was still cutting edge -- and making it seem like a seamless transition.
"When we introduced tech in the classroom, she was the first to experiment," Hellman said. "She led some education technology sessions because of how quickly she learns."
Running parallel to her work with AVID, Block said she was also one of the first teachers in the school to pioneer social studies classes tailored for students still working on their English skills. The group of students, English learners, is often the least likely to meet state standards and the most in need of remedial help. Getting around the language barrier is an added level of difficulty, and Block said she has found creative ways to convey messages and themes.
Take civics and economics, for example. For many of the students in her class, language is only just the start of the steep learning curve for teens who need to soak up an entirely new culture and system of governance in the United States. Instruction suddenly gets a lot more complicated, and involves lots of Googling images to help define new vocabulary, playing the "I'm Just a Bill" Schoolhouse Rock segment in different languages, and even doing some front-of-the-class acting.
"It is thinking a little differently than what you do in a regular classroom, but I like the challenge," Block said. "It's not an impossible task -- it makes it more fun -- and I think the kids enjoy the variety of learning experiences."
Ever since graduating from high school, Block said she has found herself helping students who need a hand, starting with volunteer work at schools and events like the Special Olympics. She recalls helping Mountain View High with what she calls "whole school" improvement -- helping out all students, including newcomers ready to accept help that the school offers.
"They always ask a lot of questions, and they want to dig deeper into the subject," Block said. "They're coming to the United States eager to learn."
Putting in the hours when it matters
Work is hardly done when the final bell rings at 2:40 p.m. at Bubb Elementary.
Starting a few years ago, first-grade teacher Kathy Patterson added another job to her already busy teaching schedule, extending her day for students in need of after-school intervention. It wasn't even for her own students -- she was helping fifth-grade kids with their reading skills -- but the students needed the extra class time and weren't getting what they needed at home, often times because parents are busy or lack the resources.
"I wish there were more hours in the day or I could do more than I can do, but these kids need our help," Patterson said. "The kids have the ability and just need the help."
The after-school program evolves each year based on where it's needed most, which this year targets first-grade students who need more reading support. Ten children "pinpointed" by teachers are getting help three days a week, with a goal of getting them at grade level within the next few years.
"The research shows we gotta get these kids on grade level by third grade," she said. "We've got to catch them early on."
Possibly a benefit of working in the field for just shy of three decades, Bubb parents and teachers alike have come to see Patterson as a mentor and a source of valuable advice that goes beyond just teaching tactics, according to Bubb Principal Cyndee Nguyen, who previously worked as a teacher. Nguyen said she looked to Patterson as a mentor when she taught at Bubb, and has only come to appreciate her more.
"She builds really strong relationships with kids and her families year after year," Nguyen said. "Families will ask about parenting things for their own kids because she's so knowledgeable."
Patterson joined Bubb Elementary in 2001 after teaching in communities in Arizona and Illinois that serve as a stark contrast to Mountain View. She taught in a poor mining town in rural Arizona, and in the Phoenix area where she encountered students experiencing violence in the home -- something she did her best to report. She said the tight-knit community at Bubb has been "wonderful" since she moved to California, and that the school has gone out of its way to celebrate diversity.
Over time, the demographics have shifted and the school has lost a bit of that diversity, with busing now gone and new boundaries, set to take effect next year, that will accelerate that trend. And Patterson said no one -- including teachers who can't afford to stay -- wants to leave Bubb.
"Things have always stayed the same in the sense that Bubb is a school that everyone loves to be at and everyone hates to leave," she said. "There are a lot of tears when teachers leave."
Patterson is the first to admit that teachers have a tough job and put in a lot more hours than one might expect. This is particularly true when standards change and new curriculum is foisted onto veteran teachers. The latest example was the implementation of California's Common Core standards.
In the lead-up to the first Common Core-aligned state test in 2015, Patterson told the Voice that it was the biggest shift in education she could recall, and that she and her colleagues were putting in 60-hour work weeks to read, learn and plan for lessons that meshed with the new standards. Patterson gave an unequivocal thumbs-up to Common Core, and said she only wished she was teaching like this 30 years ago.
"Even though at times it can be overwhelming with so much to learn and figure out as a teacher, kids are learning so much more with a much deeper understanding of the content," she said.
Nguyen said Patterson has gained a reputation for maximizing every minute of her class time and quickly adapting to change, taking what she learns -- whether a new curriculum or some type of staff development -- and implementing it in the classroom the very next day. Part of that initiative, Patterson said, comes from the fact that she has decades of experience.
"I've only got so many years left, so I want to make sure I have the greatest impact I can with the time I have with the kids," she said.