Desa Mandarino, a ninth- and 12th-grade English teacher at San Marcos High School for 16 years, has been named 2011-2012 Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year. The honor confirms what her students and colleagues have known for years: Her passion for her job makes her students love learning.
“It fills my heart with joy daily, after class sessions when a bell rings, students thank me, they thank me for the day’s lesson,” she said. “To me, when a teenager just acknowledges and verbalizes that … to stay after class and say thank you tells me they enjoy and appreciate learning.”
Mandarino coached varsity softball for 12 years and started focusing on teaching once she had her daughter, Gianna, who is now 4 years old. Don’t think her workload is easier — she teaches both freshmen and seniors in different levels of English, from English Learners to the highest-level honors class, with mainstream college preparatory classes in between.
“There’s incredible diversity across my day,” she said. “I’m not teaching in a bubble; I experience it all. … There are differentiations in curriculum, but the constants are so paramount: the absolute highest expectations, positivity and relationships with the young people.”
Mandarino started utilizing her coaching strategies in the classroom, focusing on motivation, inspiring a team-oriented atmosphere and positive reaction to pressure.
“In sports, you hear you’re only good as the weakest link,” Mandarino said. “In class, you can be as strong and as great as our greatest.”
There’s no hand-raising in response to questions, so students have to be ready all the time and be actively listening. Before a test or other academic challenge, she has them repeat after her: “Pressure makes me fresher.”
She says children need the high-pressure psychologies of coaching in the classroom as much, if not more, than athletes, and she thinks the effectiveness doesn’t get enough exposure. The students embrace it, and she can get them to do things that take a great amount of confidence, such as standing to read an emotional piece of literature they’ve written out loud.
“The more you step outside of the ‘I,’ everything is about the learner,” she said. “If they’re not learning, nothing I do matters.”
She says it means nothing if students are proficient on a STAR test but aren’t reading for fulfillment, and listening is no substitution for learning a subject so well they can teach it to others.
As a younger teacher, she would think of class as a “checklist” to get through, where she now adapts to the needs of all students. If someone mentions the vocabulary assignment is too easy, she’ll bring in 10 more words a week, she said.
“Early on, I had the philosophy of trying to make it equitable and fair,” she said. “Some athletes need to be yelled at to motivate them and some need gentleness and kind words, and it’s so much like that in the classroom.”
In fall, her name will be put in the running for California Teacher of the Year. Mandarino has twice been named Teacher of the Month at San Marcos High and received the Crystal Apple Award.
Mandarino says she does what she loves every day, and “hearing the joy of learning and appreciation of learning is just the best.”
Seeing colleagues get reduction in force notices is difficult, although her seniority has spared her.
“It’s kind of like sit and wait and hope for the best, but it’s hard,” she said. “It’s hard on a lot of my colleagues, and I feel for them.”
Outside of the classroom, Mandarino is a runner who has qualified for the Boston Marathon.
Mandarino graduated from UCSB and prayed for a job in town. Sixteen years later, her accolades include being one of the first teachers for the Accelerated Academic Program with Leadership Enrichment, a mentor teacher for Beginning Teachers Support and Assessment, and a published author.
San Marcos Assistant Principal Ed Behrens said Mandarino “listens with an open mind and cares greatly about each and every one of her students. … Her car can be found in the parking lot at all hours of day and night, including weekends.”
Elizabeth Ochi, a student, said Mandarino is a gifted teacher whose love for literature makes her a role model for every student who is lucky enough to have her.
“She was continuously pushing us to be fearless with our learning by pursuing new depths, to be lifelong learners, and she genuinely believed that with enough time and effort, we could achieve whatever we pursued,” Ochi said.
Katina Etsell, a parent, said, “You have not lived until you have experienced Mrs. Mandarino. She brings her enthusiasm and love for English, literature, and writing into her fast-paced classroom where students emerge at the end of two terms as thinkers, readers, writers and communicators.”