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Teachers honored at 22nd annual Confucius Birthday event

Three Tulare County educators have been selected to receive the Educators of the Year Award on September 24 at the Central California Chinese Cultural Center. For over two decades, the Tulare County Office of Education has partnered with the Chinese Cultural Center to honor teachers on the birthday of Chinese philosopher, Confucius. Confucius’ birthday is an occasion Chinese people around the world use to celebrate great educators.

The invitation-only awards program recognizes one elementary, middle and high school teacher. This year, the honorees are: Vicky Kusnierek, a fifth-grade teacher at Pleasant View West School in the Pleasant View School District; Krystal Poloka, a seventh- and eighth-grade STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) and eighth-grade science teacher at El Monte Middle School in the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District; and Dennis Bettencourt, the band director at Redwood High School in the Visalia Unified School District.

“These remarkable educators have a tireless dedication to their students and their schools," says Tulare County Superintendent of Schools Jim Vidak. "Their energy and 'above and beyond' attitudes should be an inspiration to all of us."

Vicky Kusnierek - Elementary Teacher of the Year Elementary School Educator of the Year Vicky Kusnierek is a fifth-grade teacher at Pleasant View School West, which serves the Poplar community west of Porterville. She entered the teaching profession after serving as a volunteer in her own children’s classroom. Excited about the learning she saw, she decided to pursue her teaching credential. Once she had obtained it, she resigned her position of 18 years as the business manager for the Porterville Recorder to begin teaching at Pleasant View. “It really has been fantastic,” she said of her new career.

Her superintendent, Mark Odsather, said, “Vicky is the consummate professional. Every day, she strives to make the learning environment in her classroom as rich as possible.” Ms. Kusnierek works to make her classroom a safe environment where she can address any challenges on an individual basis with the goal that students will become independent and “create their own learning.” While she is academically demanding of her students, Ms. Kusnierek says that she wants them to know, “how much I love each one of them. If they know I care, they’re going to perform – not just for me, but for themselves.”

Vicky Kusnierek is also credited for improving the quality of teacher training at Pleasant View. “Our staff looks to Vicky as a leader,” said Mr. Odsather. “She is always looking to push herself and the staff around her to become better at what they do. She does this with a humble, positive attitude and an infectious smile.”

Krystal Poloka - Middle School Teacher of the Year Krystal Poloka of El Monte Middle School is the Middle School Educator of the Year. Ms. Poloka began her teaching career as an instructor at Fresno City College. She taught biology for ten years before discovering that she loved working with middle school students. Colleagues say that Ms. Poloka has a way of setting her students at ease and showing them that they can master the science and technology concepts in her classes.

In addition to her eighth-grade science class, Ms. Poloka has taken on the challenge of teaching two STEM classes, which integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics through using robotics and other hands-on activities. She also invests her time in mentoring students through programs such as Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA); Science Olympiad; and the school’s science bowl competitions. “Krystal is one of those teachers who gives every part of her being to her profession,” said Donna Hall, an academics coach at El Monte Middle School. “Her Saturdays are often committed to student competitions or field trips for students to participate in various science and engineering activities.”

Ms. Poloka’s support for her students extends beyond class time. She maintains an open-door policy before and after school and eats her lunch in her classroom each day so that students have a safe and supportive place to go. She also enjoys supporting her students by attending their sports and music performances after school. “Some students are going to remember Krystal as the teacher who made science fun, while others are going to credit her for getting them interested in the fields of science and technology,” added Ms. Hall. “There will be a few, I’m quite sure, who will see Krystal as the person who saved their life.”

Dennis Bettencourt - High School Teacher of the Year The High School Educator of the Year is Redwood’s band director Dennis Bettencourt. Mr. Bettencourt has been the band director at Redwood High School for 29 years. Director of Choral Music Mel Carrillo said, “Dennis is an outstanding musician and an exceptional teacher. He knows how to impart his knowledge in a way that students get excited about. Not all musicians can do that.”

Mr. Bettencourt is credited for his commitment to excellence in performance, and for his ability to create a warm family environment where students can learn, grow, and take chances willingly. Redwood Drama Teacher Stacy Galvan said that in his career, Mr. Bettencourt has impacted the lives of approximately 5,000 students, and thousands of people in the community. “We have a saying at Redwood: make it big, do it right, give it class,” she said. “Dennis is the epitome of that expression.”

Visalia Unified Superintendent Dr. Craig Wheaton said, “Dennis has a deep understanding of the positive influence that music has to engage, humanize, and bring together students. He has made music an important part of his school community — an element that helps form a positive school culture and bind students together through shared experiences.”

For more information on the Educators of the Year Awards, contact Marlene Moreno at (559) 733-6302.