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Ventura County

Teacher of the Year Is a Study in Motivation

For Tamara Thornell of Oxnard, one of five educators to be honored by the state, the profession is 'amazingly rewarding.'

November 22, 2002|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

Oxnard teacher Tamara Thornell rarely stops thinking about her classroom.

At home on weekends, she ponders lesson plans.

Vacationing in Mexico, she stopped to buy bilingual books and maracas for her second-graders at Brekke School.

Even last week, when Thornell was in the hospital having her first baby, she grabbed a handful of handouts she thought might be useful for a health lesson.

Such enthusiasm for her students and her profession has made Thornell stand out at her school and in Ventura County. Now she is being recognized as one of five California Teachers of the Year, state education officials announced this week.

"From the first second of every day, teaching is amazingly rewarding," said Thornell, 32, instructor in a bilingual class for nine years. "I love the students. And I love everything about watching them grow and learn."

That is obvious to those who have seen her at work, said Renne Ripps, principal at Brekke.

Thornell's classroom is a learning wonderland, Ripps said. She has a knack for giving individual help to children -- particularly those dealing with poverty or violence at home.

And her patient, sweet demeanor is the "epitome of what a teacher should be," Ripps added.

"She goes over and beyond what's expected," Ripps said. "If a family can't come to school for parent conferences, she'll go to their house to meet with them. She really connects with people."

In her classroom, Thornell works to ensure each child builds self-esteem and confidence.

Stemming from her own experience as a shy grade-schooler, Thornell has folded a strong public-speaking element into her lessons.

Every Tuesday, her second-graders must read aloud a paragraph they have written, eventually while standing at the front of the room. On Fridays, students recite a poem or sing a song they have memorized for the rest of the class.

At the same time, she teaches students to applaud after every speech -- no matter what. For those who start out speaking very softly, she hands them a microphone.

"I don't want them growing up shy and quiet -- they need to be outgoing," Thornell said. "You could hide in a corner and go a year without being noticed, but how much are you learning?"

Thornell also is focused on technology, teaching her students how to use Power Point and helping them create their own Web pages.

At the end of the year students compile samples of their work in an "e-portfolio" that they present to the class. She also puts on workshops to help other teachers incorporate computer programs into their classes. "Technology is such a fabulous way to reach kids," Thornell said.

Loving the idea that she could help others succeed, Thornell never doubted she would become a teacher.

As a child, she said, she would persuade her siblings to "play school" when class was not in session. And in the seventh grade she ran a summer preschool club for kids in her neighborhood.

"They all seemed to be so happy and having fun," Thornell recalled. "I thought, 'It'd be cool to do this for a living.' "

She graduated from UC Davis in 1993 with a major in math and minor in Spanish, and got her bilingual education credential the next year. Two years ago she earned a master's degree in educational technology from Azusa Pacific University.

Her career began in Oxnard at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, where she taught first- and second-grade classes for three years before moving to Brekke.

The Teacher of the Year award is granted to only a handful of educators from across the state. The news came just days after she gave birth to Jacqueline. "I'm having a really good week," Thornell said. "Life can't get any better than this."

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