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Saturday, Apr 18 2009 10:47 AM

In search of the "Wow!" factor

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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian West High School ninth grader, Emily Chim, left, works on a science demonstration with Teresa Casallas, a West High teacher, in front of one of Casallas' classes.

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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian Teresa Casallas, a West High School integrated science teacher, uses a balloon in her classroom during a science demonstration on how different charges repel.

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BY JEFF NACHTIGAL, Californian staff writer jnachtigal@bakersfield.com

On the first day of school, Teresa Casallas gets to teach one of her favorite lessons, when she dons a pirate costume complete with fake parrot and bags of pirate booty, and proceeds to shock her students into having fun learning the scientific method.

"They look at me like I'm crazy, but they see I'm not uptight, and they buy into it," said Casallas, an integrated science teacher at West High and a 2009 nominee for Kern County Teacher of the Year.

Related Info

Kern County Teachers of the Year awards reception

Two top teachers and an alternate will be recognized; they move on to the state competition, where five teachers will be announced next November.

Three Kern County teachers will be recognized for earning national board certification.

When: 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Kern County Museum gazebo, 3801 Chester Ave.

"It's really simple, but they remember the steps," said Casallas, who strives to reach kids by coming up with creative, authentic ways to illustrate lessons.

(And it doesn't hurt to be loaded up with caffeine on that first morning to maximize the fun quotient, she said.)

Walk into Casallas', or any one of the classrooms of the 37 teachers nominated this year, and the "Wow!" factor of a superb teacher should be readily apparent.

"She was engaging, she has a rapport with the kids, she's got a game plan, and there's innovation," said Kenneth E. Dyar, a 2006 California Teacher of the Year who teaches PE in the Delano Union Elementary School District.

As a judge for this year's awards, he observed Casallas dash from one student group to another, crouching to make eye-level contact, liberally tossing out "good jobs," and "OK, be right theres," and smiling broadly when a student figured out a problem.

Casallas was a whirlwind of wisdom, rubbing a balloon against her head to generate a positive electron charge one moment, then taking three steps backward for another group to demonstrate wave action as the class worked its way through a learning game dubbed "The Amazing Science Race."

Tying the lesson into popular culture and using lots of learning props was a good sign, Dyar said.

In the midst of the controlled chaos, students stayed on track and even turned to help each other, a sign of Casallas' organizational skills, said Ann Georgian, a coordinator with the county's Beginning Teacher Consortium.

And all in 3-inch heels! Georgian noted.

Asked to describe the class, one student remarked to Georgian, "she don't trip like others."

Another student said, "Best class I've ever had."

Teaching lifestyle

For Casallas, in her seventh year as an educator, teaching is more lifestyle than career.

When she goes on vacation with her husband, Erick Casallas -- the teacher of the year at Emerson Middle School last year -- they talk about how they can bring the world back to their students.

Casallas jokes with her class that she feels like she's cheating on her husband because, she says, "I talk about you all the time."

In her nominee essay, Casallas wrote that her most distinguishing aspect is "how much I care for each and every one of my students."

"That's the most satisfying feeling, when you've taken kids that really need you, and you've helped them," Casallas said.

Casallas believes that each student is smart in his or her own way, and she structures lessons so she can emphasize all students' intelligence and help them reach their full potential.

The voluntary sign-up sheet for a Saturday study session was proof of Casallas' passion for teaching.

At least a dozen names were on the list.

Students would bring their own lunch to the four-hour study session, but afterward they'd all go to McDonald's.

"That's where her money is going," Georgian said with a knowing nod.

The special spark of a great teacher at work is so clear that when you walk in a classroom you can feel it, said Merry McCalley, School-Community Partnerships director for Kern County.

Do they have a passion for teaching? Are the students engaged? Is what they're teaching relevant to the students in the classroom? McCalley said all were indicators of a great teacher.

By the end of last week, Dyar was confident the committee had picked the top three nominees for Teachers of the Year to be announced Tuesday.

"They were not only teachers of students, but leaders in the school and their community," Dyar said.

"And they do many extra things beyond the final bell."

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