El Segundo Educator, Beth Katz, 1 of 3 South Bay Educators among 16 L.A. County Teachers of the Year


Wendy Monroy knows what it’s like to struggle in math.

Although she was a stellar student at Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles, Monroy found college to be a wake-up call: she was kicked out of Cal State Northridge after a year for bad grades.

But Monroy didn’t allow that failure to keep her from achieving her goal of becoming a math teacher. On Friday, the 34-year-old algebra and geometry teacher at Narbonne High School in Harbor City was among 16 recipients of the Los Angeles County Teachers of the Year award.

“I still can’t believe it,” said Monroy, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala at age 12. “I still think I’m horrible at math.”

She must be an exceptional teacher, considering how the 76 participating public school districts in Los Angeles County employ a combined 75,000 teachers.

Monroy and two other teachers from the South Bay and Harbor Area were among what the Los Angeles County Office of Education has coined the Sweet 16. They were honored Friday at a banquet in Universal City.

The other two local winners were Michael Hayden, a choir teacher from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, and Beth Katz, a special education teacher at Richmond Street Elementary School in El Segundo.

In a sense, the subjects taught by the three educators couldn’t be more varied. But there’s a common thread in the approach they take: for each of the three teachers, the subject matter itself isn’t necessarily the main focus.

“I try to teach the whole person — to make them a better person,” Hayden said. “I use music as a vehicle to do that.”

Hayden abides by four principles that were espoused by the ancient Mayan Toltec culture: Be impeccable in your word, don’t take anything personally, don’t make assumptions and always do your best.

“Each one of these has quite a lot of enlightenment about it,” he said.

In an effort to draw out the best possible performance of his singers, Hayden will sometimes moderate a discussion about the lyrics of a song.

When a panel of teachers and administrators from Manhattan Beach Unified visited his classroom — they do so to vet every school’s Teacher of the Year — they walked in on a discussion about a song overlaid with the lyrics to the poem “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, about moving over the threshold into death.

“It was about when you pass away, what kind of legacy have you left?” said Carolyn Seaton, the district’s director of educational services. “It was a very deep, college-level discussion.”

Then the all-girl choir began to sing. Several of the seven panelists had to put down their clipboards to dry their eyes.

Hayden says deciphering and discussing lyrics can help bring a performance to the next level.

“It changes the sound, it changes the intention,” he said. “When we speak and have emotion in our voice, the tone changes. … In music, in singing, when you put into the person how you really feel about the lyrics, that dramatically affects the color and sound of your voice.”

At Richmond Street Elementary, Katz is the specialist responsible for ensuring all special needs children are included in the regular classroom setting. Some of the 15 students she works with this year have severe autism or mental retardation. But Katz understands that these kids, like all people, abhor embarrassment and relish moments of pride.

She has a keen eye for the warning signs of a brewing outburst in a full classroom: a scrunched-up face, perhaps, or fidgety legs. When this happens, she will discretely place a tiny purple sticky note on the child’s desk as a signal for them to come into the hallway for a break.

“Nobody sees it — they are not singled out in any way,” she said.

Conversely, she also tries to bolster their self-esteem.

Often, general-ed students will help tutor the special-ed kids. But some of her kids have unique talents. Perhaps they have an impeccable memory and excel at memory games. If that’s the case, Katz makes a point to show that off by arranging for a contest with the general-ed student.

“Academically, the general-education student may be fine, but my kiddo can knock them out with their memory,” she said. “And then they feel really good — they are happy and not frustrated.”

As for Monroy, who went on to earn her teaching credential at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, she can relate with the urban struggles of her students. When she was 12, she and her parents were whisked into the United States illegally by train. (The family was granted amnesty by President Ronald Reagan’s immigration reform law.) Neither of her parents went to school beyond the fifth grade.

When her students tell her they can’t do anything, she stresses their common ground. And then she reminds them that they can do quite a bit. They can add, for instance — and at one time, they couldn’t.

“So don’t say you ‘can’t,’ ” she said. “Say you don’t know how.”

As with Hayden, Monroy aims to transcend subject area.

“I tell my kids: when you come into my classroom, there is only one door,” she said. “You come in here empty. When you get out, you should at least take something with you. Not just in math, not just in education. But as a human being.”

Narbonne High Principal Gerald Kobata said Monroy has a remarkable ability to bring struggling students up to proficiency or better.

“She came from a really humble background, but she has this determination and perseverance,” he said. “She doesn’t give up, and she doesn’t give up on her students. She feels if she can do it, they can all do it.”

Monroy and the 15 other county winners automatically advance, with other county awardees from around the state, to the California Teachers of the Year competition. The state is scheduled to announce its five co-winners in November.