Keeping students engaged and showing them the value of hard work has been a hallmark of Chris Rekstad’s teaching career. For those reasons, and several more, Rekstad was selected the Teacher of the Year for the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District. The Valley Elementary School teacher, who will be recognized at the Sept. 14 district board meeting, was honored and humbled by his selection. “I was honored and I couldn’t believe it,” Rekstad said of the award. “At this school, we work with 29 other incredibly wonderful teachers who put in just as much hard work and effort as I do. We all work together and we are a great team. This kind of represents them also. “Someone has to get the victory, I guess. I will take this one this year and we will be looking forward to someone else again next year. But it was quite an honor and it still really hasn’t sunk in.” Rekstad, who has taught at Valley Elementary for 24 years, was nominated as school site Teacher of the Year by his principal, Kathy Miller. He was then chosen from those 13 candidates as the district’s Teacher of the Year. “That is even more of a shock and just an honor,” Rekstad said about the district award. “I have looked at the people who have won since I have been here over the last 20 years and I just kind of go ‘Wow, those are amazing people.’ Now, I am a part of that list. It is quite humbling, that is for sure.” In her nomination letter, Miller called Rekstad an outstanding leader in and out of the classroom. “In fact,” she said, “Chris is one of the authors of Whole Brain Teaching (WBT), which was first developed in 1999. Whole Brain Teaching promotes a high-energy, hyper-focused method where teachers use game-like challenges, key words, and motivational methods, while eliciting continuous spoken responses from students to keep them fully engaged every minute. It sounds exhausting, but you would never know it because of the enthusiasm that Chris brings to the classroom day-in and day-out.” You can hear that enthusiasm in Rekstad’s voice when he talks about why he enjoys teaching fourth grade, the job opening that was available when he was first hired by the district and where he’s stayed over the years. “That was the opening and I took it, and instantly fell in love with the curriculum of fourth grade California history,” he said, his voice growing with excitement. “I did not grow up in California so it was intriguing to me and so much of the whole western United States was formed because of the Gold Rush and the missions and so many different things, it was just a great, great time and easy to teach and we had a lot of fun.” Rekstad was referring to the traditional fourth-grade project, where students write a research paper and construct a model on one aspect of California history. “I think,” he said, “that it is a good chance for them to see other parts of their state.” Seeing students’ enthusiasm and interest for California history is not the only thing that Rekstad likes about teaching fourth grade, however. “Part of the allure to it all is getting kids to see that they can improve,” he said. By fourth grade, he said, a lot of kids believe they are not good at something. “What we try to get them to understand is I can get better, I can improve. That is kind of our mantra: More effort equals more success,” Rekstad said of the Valley staff. “If they work hard at it, they are going to really get a lot more out of it as they work at it and continue to improve.” That care for students beyond his fourth-grade classroom is another attribute that sets Rekstad apart. “He works above and beyond to ensure that our focus is on improved culture, leadership, and academic success,” Miller wrote in her nomination letter. Then in a phone conversation, Miller simply said: “He is just a good man. He’s an outstanding man.” While Rekstad awaits the next step in the Teacher of the Year process, which is at the county level, he has stepped away from his daily role in the classroom this school year to take on a Teacher on Assignment for Curriculum position. “It’s a very nice chance to change things up a little bit,” he said, “but really to go in and help the teachers as we all navigate these waters of change, of bringing kids back in school and building those relationships.” Even though relationships are not part of curriculum they affect students’ ability to learn and will be part of Rekstad’s new position. “This year we are spending a lot of time on building relationships,” he said. “If you think about it, kids who are in fourth grade right now, the last time they were on a school campus was in second grade and that just seems so crazy. “They are still learning how to be together and do different things like that. It is a challenge for our teachers.”
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