Gregory Wolf — a Santa Ynez Valley Union High School social science teacher in the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District — is the 2024 Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year. On Oct. 16, he was named the 2024 California Teacher of the Year, the highest state recognition a teacher can earn.
Elesa Carlson, the drama director and an art teacher at Righetti High School in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, will be recognized as the 2024 Santa Barbara Bowl Performing Arts Teacher of the Year.
The 2024 distinguished mentors to be recognized are Victoria Aguirre of Hollister School in the Goleta Union School District, Natalie Durbin of Liberty School in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, and Tiffany Gonzales of Peabody Charter School in the Santa Barbara Unified School District.
The 2024 distinguished new educators to be honored are Ryan Helsel of Goleta Valley Junior High School in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, Sammi Lambert of San Marcos High School in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, and Julio Molina of Delta High School in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District.
The 10th annual presentation will be livestreamed at 5 p.m. Nov. 4 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orwewJn9SQE.
Noozhawk: Why did you decide to become a teacher?
Sammi Lambert: There are quite a few experiences that lead me to teaching, but the biggest one being that I did not have good experiences with science in my formal elementary through high school education.
Despite absolutely loving science, especially chemistry, I never felt like I belonged in the field. I was even told that I didn’t by one of my teachers!
I became a teacher so that fewer kids would go through science — hopefully — not experiencing their teacher telling them that they didn’t belong. I never want a student to feel like that in my classroom. Science is for everyone.
As kids, we have a natural sense of curiosity that is beaten down as we get older, and we are made to feel like asking questions is more of a burden than anything else. Which is just wildly unfair!
I want any kid who comes into my classroom to feel like their ideas and questions are important and valid. I want them to understand how they are impacted by science every single day and be able to think critically, to read articles and argue about them, and to critique information using evidence so that we’re producing more well-rounded kids who can go off to be their best selves and improve their communities using things they’ve learned in their education.
Noozhawk: How long have you been teaching?
SL: I am currently in my third year as a high school teacher. Previously I worked in elementary science education with the SciTrek Elementary program based out of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UC Santa Barbara.
I’m very lucky to have a hand in both the elementary and secondary science education worlds!
Noozhawk: What is your favorite subject or lesson plan to teach your students?
SL: I have taught all levels of chemistry ever offered at San Marcos High — General chemistry, Medical chemistry, Honors chemistry, Santa Barbara City College Dual Enrollment Chemistry and AP Chemistry!
And, yes, I am exhausted.
Hands down, my absolute favorite class is AP Chemistry. By the time the kids get to AP Chem, they’ve already had a full semester of chemistry and are ready to tackle the topics on an even deeper level.
Working with those students to design and carry out high-rigor and complex experiments is SO much fun.
Plus, I get to see these kids for an entire year, which on the block system is rare, so the vibes in the classroom are just so positive, and we all become very close as a class.
Noozhawk: What is your favorite part of being a teacher?
SL: I cannot stress enough how much I love watching kids’ faces when I let them light things on fire. Safely, obviously.
Noozhawk: What are the challenges of your job?
SL: Teaching is a highly rewarding, but absolutely exhausting job. To be an effective teacher, you really have to engage yourself in your community and be generous with your personal time.
I’ve been working in the Santa Barbara Unified (School District) chemistry community for four years now.
I love my school, I love my job, and I love my kids. I want their science experience to be the best it can possibly be, which means working into the evening and nearly every weekend to set up and take down labs, write interesting and engaging curriculum, and offer my help and support outside of classroom hours.
Our amazing chemistry teachers in this district have worked to build a sense of community in which all general chemistry students at every high school are having the same experiences in their learning. This is unique to any other department.
But, it’s been tough watching new colleagues come in one year just to see them decide the next that SBUSD is not the place for them. You can’t build up a community when every year members of that community leave.
Retaining teachers needs to be made a priority. Collaborating to build a community can only happen through time, and this will only happen if our district makes teacher retention through competitive salary and benefits packages their priority in the coming years.
Noozhawk: What are you most looking forward to this school year?
SL: For the first time, I don’t have to teach a NEW class this year! I’m only teaching dual-enrollment chemistry!
All teachers will understand how exciting that is. I can focus on making my current curriculum better, rather than writing new things from scratch!
Noozhawk: Who are your mentors?
SL: My mentors are the most important people in my life. There is straight-up no way I would be receiving this award if I wasn’t absolutely graced by their presence in my life.
My first mentor is my college calculus professor, Lisa McKowan, who teaches at Santa Ana College. She was the first person to really show me what a powerhouse woman in STEM could be.
She also got me my first TA job, which made me LOVE teaching college-level courses.
My second mentor is my graduate adviser, Dr. Darby Feldwinn, who teaches chemistry and education courses at UCSB. She’s also a Dos Pueblos High alum, but we won’t hold that against her. Heck yeah, Royals!
I am absolutely convinced that there is no one in the world who works harder for or cares more about science education than Darby. She is brilliant, she understands how to break down science for anyone to understand, she still pushes me to be a better educator, she is my favorite person in the world, and she is the reason I felt confident and prepared for teaching when I finished my Masters program.
Noozhawk: Who are the people in your life and work environment who support you every day?
SL: I have the best colleagues. The San Marcos High science department is filled with the coolest, most supportive people who all deserve to be recognized for the amazing work that they do.
Especially the three teachers I share a wing with — Kim Tilton, Emily Carver and Jorge Sifontes.
My husband has also been the most supportive person of my career and educational goals since the day I met him, and I’m very grateful to have someone to help me alphabetize papers.
Noozhawk: How does it feel to be honored as part of the Salute to Teachers?
SL: Oh, super weird. I’m a very Type-A teacher who immediately finishes a lesson, focuses on what went “not best” and tries to figure out how to change it to make it better.
I naturally gravitate toward focusing on my own practice on improvements to be made rather than what went well.
So in the first few years of teaching, I haven’t really stopped to think about things that have gone well, which is why this award kind of came as a shock.
But, it does feel really special to be recognized at the same time as my colleague, Ryan Helsel. We both went through the same graduate program at UCSB with Dr. Feldwinn and we stayed to teach in SBUSD.
It’s truly awesome to feel like our little community is crushing it.