By Jeremiah Dobruck
8:07 PM PST, January 30, 2013
Kristen Johnson and Yassi Motamed work about 10 miles away from each other, but on Tuesday morning, they got the same surprise in their respective classrooms.
Newport-Mesa Unified School District selected them as elementary and secondary school teachers of the year.
Just after 8 a.m., school officials sneaked into Johnson's class at Newport Coast Elementary School, and then Motamed's, at TeWinkle Middle School in Costa Mesa.
"It was a whirlwind yesterday — everything was a blur," Johnson said, adding that staffers at the front desk thought something might be wrong when the superintendent and school board members showed up asking for her.
But they brought good news.
"I was completely caught off-guard," Johnson said. "I wasn't even thinking I would win it."
After being selected a top-10 teacher for the year, evaluators visited Johnson and Motamed's classrooms.
Johnson's fourth graders were sitting in a circle, discussing literature. She has them practice dialects while they discuss, and awards them points based on the books they read.
Motamed's math class was playing a review game in which rows of students compete by writing the answers on white boards and then holding them up for all to see.
They were also each evaluated on a bevy of written submissions and an in-person interview.
Both teachers said they were ecstatic to be selected as top talent in the district, but deferred to their peers, saying they admire their competition.
"I felt really honored just to even be hired," said Motamed, 27. "I just felt really honored to be part of the school."
She grew up in San Francisco and began teaching at Newport-Mesa in 2009 after going to UC Irvine and cutting her teeth teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Now she instructs algebra and pre-algebra at TeWinkle, where she says her personal brand is making sure she connects with students inside and outside the classroom.
"I just make sure I get to know them and their families," she said, adding that her goal is to make them feel accepted as they learn.
Johnson, 33, is from Anchorage, Alaska, and began teaching in Newport-Mesa after going to school at California State Fullerton.
She got her job at Newport Coast Elementary when she was 24 and worked her way from second to third to fourth grade.
Along the way, she has tried to instill honor, integrity, empathy and compassion in her kids, she said.
But her pride in winning the award is as much a testament to her parents and colleagues as her, she explained.
"It's an amazing feeling," Johnson said. "I'm very proud, but I am a product of my environment; I really am."