Six Educators Named Finalists for 2017 Texas Teacher of the Year

Published 10:10 am Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Special to The Leader

AUSTIN – The Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) announced Monday that six outstanding educators from across Texas have been chosen as finalists in the 2017 Texas Teacher of the Year program.

Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year finalists:

Allison Ashley, Becker Elementary School, Austin ISD – “One of the most powerful things educators can do is model for students a love of learning, an eagerness for and appreciation of feedback, a transparent sharing of goals, and the vulnerability to fail and try again,” said Ashley, who holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has taught bilingual education in Austin ISD for the past six of her nine years in education. “When a commitment to learning and growth mindset are explicitly modeled and taught for students in authentic ways, it contributes to a class environment where students are more willing to take risks, fail, revisit and revise work, and strive for continuous improvement.”

Julie Garza, Alfonso Ramirez Elementary School, Edinburg CISD – Garza, who has taught K-5 elementary/choral music at Ramirez Elementary School since 2010 and in Edinburg CISD for the bulk of her 26-year career in education, said her greatest accomplishment as a teacher has been exposing students to the fine art of music and watching their confidence grow. “I see their confidence in smiles as they walk into my classroom, when they’re playing basic chords on their guitars, or singing and moving on stage, and when they ask if they can be in choir because they finally got their average up,” she said. “It is an honor to teach children!”

LaGay Pittenger, Lakewood Elementary School, Belton ISD – “I truly believe that every child is entitled to a strong educational foundation; one that will prepare them to be successful, contributing citizens in a future that is continually changing,” said Pittenger, a fifth-grade teacher and team leader, and a 25-year veteran educator. “My aim is to provide a classroom with innovative, hands-on learning experiences, where technology enhances learning and a dedication to student success and positive working relationships with parents and co-workers create a nurturing environment so all students gain a strong foundation.”

Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year finalists:

Deborah Campbell, San Angelo Central High School, San Angelo ISD – “I do my best to encourage students to step outside preconceived expectations and the misguided skepticisms of others — even loved ones — to get in touch with finding more than a dream. I challenge them to find a destiny,” said Campbell, who teaches speech and serves as the Central High School Credit Recovery program coordinator. “Almost daily, you will find me asking varying students, ‘WHY do you need this diploma? What were you meant to do? How will you use the diploma to get there?’ If they know the ‘why,’ they will come to school, they will fight through the hardships, and they will value the necessity of their education as a means to a successful end. Knowing they will take it further is what drives me to be persistent and persevere.” Campbell is a 20-year veteran educator who has taught in San Angelo ISD for 10 years.

Calvin Lambert, Uvalde High School, Uvalde CISD – “For the past 23 years, I have had the supreme privilege to be a teacher with the ability and knowledge to share my heart, my world travels, and experiences of peace time and two wars,” said Lambert, who has taught naval science and administered the Naval Junior ROTC at Uvalde High School for the past 17 years of his 23-year career in education — following a 26-year military career. “The key to my success in NJROTC has nothing to do with exams, end-of-course testing, or the normal routine of academics and school. I attribute my success to building positive relationships. NJROTC provides a warm, inviting, safe climate where students are genuinely cared for and their best interests are the most important things at hand. My students know where they can go when things get tough elsewhere. They know who they can turn to when there seems to be no one else.”

Sarah Macha, Infinity Early College High School, New Caney ISD – “My strategy is to teach to all and to see the content through a beginner’s mind,” said Macha, who has taught social studies at Infinity ECHS for the past three years of her 10-year career in education. “The subject of social studies is full of difficult concepts, and students see events in the news that even adults struggle to comprehend. … Every year I have students who come to me hating social studies. They say it is boring and just memorizing dates, facts, and dead people. I always tell them that if that is what you think history is then you’ve been taught history wrong. I attempt to open their eyes that history is the study of human beings and how they lived, struggled, loved, rejoiced, fought, and in many cases, gave their lives for others. History is the study of all of us, and we study it so we know who we are and who we want to be. … If l can reach a student that way, it opens them to curiosity and an eagerness to begin their own search for answers.”

“I congratulate these six outstanding educators who strive every day to make a difference in the lives of students,” said Johnny L. Veselka, executive director of TASA, which has coordinated the Texas Teacher of the Year program since 2011. “They represent the thousands of dedicated educators throughout Texas who diligently work to ensure their students not only master the academic content, but are also prepared to face the future with perseverance, integrity and a love of learning.”

A panel of judges composed of representatives of Texas teacher associations and the 2016 Texas Teacher of the Year finalists selected the finalists from the 40 Texas Regional Teachers of the Year — one elementary and one secondary teacher from each of the 20 Texas Education Service Center regions.

2017 Texas Regional Teachers of the Year:

Region Region Elementary Teacher of the Year Region Secondary Teacher of the Year
1 Julie Garza, Alfonso Ramirez Elementary School, Edinburg CISD (Finalist) Gilberto Villarreal, Hidalgo Early College High School, Hidalgo ISD
2 Dolly Ann Toews, Collins-Parr Elementary School, San Diego ISD Jaime Trevino, Foy H. Moody High School, Corpus Christi ISD
3 Julie Gray, Vickers Elementary School, Victoria ISD Shelby Gadeke, El Campo Middle School, El Campo ISD
4 Laura Hamilton, Stehlik Intermediate School, Aldine ISD Dale Jensen, Clear View High School, Clear Creek ISD
5 Stacey Arabie, Little Cypress Elementary School, Little Cypress-Mauriceville CISD Azineth Buan, Memorial High School, Port Arthur ISD
6 Heather Cowham, Bear Branch Elementary School, Magnolia ISD Sarah Macha, Infinity Early College High School, New Caney ISD (Finalist)
7 Virginia “Ginny” Gayso, Northside Primary School, Palestine ISD Neda Morrow, Lindale High School, Lindale ISD
8 Fleta “Jeanette” Allison, Travis Elementary School, Greenville ISD Ana Patricia Baroody, Paris High School, Paris ISD
9 Rhonda Birdwell, John Hardin Elementary School, Burkburnett ISD Gary Cunningham, Carrigan Career Center, Wichita Falls ISD
10 Erika Manning, Weatherford Elementary School,   Plano ISD Jonna Spiller, Bonham High School, Bonham ISD
11 Monica Maynor, Roanoke Elementary School, Northwest ISD Denise Kennedy, Lake Dallas High School, Lake   Dallas ISD
12 LaGay Pittenger, Lakewood Elementary School, Belton ISD (Finalist) Michael Chirhart, Hillsboro High School, Hillsboro ISD
13 Allison Ashley, Perez Elementary School, Austin ISD (Finalist) Crystal Kelley, Goodnight Middle School, San Marcos CISD
14 Lorianne Toombs, Hutchinson Elementary School, Colorado ISD Kathy Witt, Sweetwater High School, Sweetwater ISD
15 Kelly Lujan, Ruben Chavira Elementary School, San Felipe Del Rio CISD Deborah Campbell, San Angelo Central High School, San Angelo ISD (Finalist)
16 Erica Hennigh, Sundown Lane Elementary, Canyon ISD Mary Malone, Caprock High School, Amarillo ISD
17 Daniela Torres, Bean Elementary School, Lubbock ISD Charla Scott, Loop School, Loop ISD
18 Kenna Ivey, Buena Vista Elementary School, Buena Vista ISD Anna Dutchover, Pecos High School, Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD
19 Marisela Fernandez, Carroll T. Welch Elementary School, Clint ISD Raquel Jimenez Kuker, Parkland Middle School,   Ysleta ISD
20 Eva Longoria, Edmund Cody Elementary School, Northside ISD Calvin Lambert, Uvalde High School, Uvalde CISD (Finalist)

The six finalists will be invited to Austin in October for interviews before a panel of judges composed of representatives of educational leadership associations, community and business leaders, a member of the State Board for Educator Certification, a member of the State Board of Education, and prior Texas Teachers of the Year.

The panel will select two state-level winners — Elementary Teacher of the Year and Secondary Teacher of the Year — and designate one to represent Texas in the National Teacher of the Year program. The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony Oct. 14 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, where the 40 Regional Teachers of the Year will also be recognized.

The Texas Teacher of the Year program has honored excellence in classroom education since 1969. The program, facilitated by TASA since 2011, annually recognizes and rewards teachers who have demonstrated outstanding leadership and excellence in teaching. In 2015, Texas Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples of Amarillo ISD became the second Texas teacher to be named the National Teacher of the Year. Learn more at

TASA is the professional association for Texas school administrators, providing networking and professional learning opportunities, legislative advocacy, and targeted communications to support the work of superintendents and other school leaders. TASA’s mission is to promote, provide and develop leaders who create and sustain student-centered schools and develop future-ready students.