Kristi Chavez, a special education teacher at Pinkerton Middle School. 

This month, the Elk Grove Unified School District honored two teachers for the 2022-23 school year. Both now qualify to be Sacramento County’s Teacher of the Year.

One is a 27-year veteran educator who became a special education teacher based on her experience of parenting two children with disabilities. The other is an Elk Grove native who always wanted to be a teacher since the third grade.

These are their stories.

Kristi Chavez, special education teacher, Elizabeth Pinkerton Middle School

Kristi Chavez often told the Citizen that the “little things” matter so much to her as a special education teacher at Elizabeth Pinkerton Middle School.

She recalled current and former students who reached milestones such as learning more vocabulary words, getting jobs, or simply learning how to clean up microwave popcorn butter.

“I enjoy watching how they grow when they get their first jobs, and hearing them say, ‘Nobody ever thought I could do it.’ ‘I never thought I could read, and I can read this,’ (or) ‘I filled out that job application just like you showed me,’” Chavez said. “It’s those little things, but they’re super huge. I just feel honored and blessed I’ve been teaching 27 years, and the relationships I have are amazing.”

She works in a “self-contained” classroom where special education students spend most of their school day learning. Some of her students have autism while others undergo physical or occupational therapy. 

Chavez not only educates them on subjects such as spelling, mathematics, and science, she also teaches them independent living skills like ordering from a restaurant menu, home cooking, and personal hygiene.

“It sounds minor, but it’s huge for our kids,” she said about her students learning how to use their money at restaurants.

As the school year was coming to an end, the teacher mentioned their academic progress.

“I have kiddos in here with a huge range of abilities, but every single student just completed their final of the year, and every one of them had tremendous growth,” she said. “So, it says that what we are doing is working and it says their confidence is growing, and I think that’s huge.”

Chavez’s nearly 30 years in education began after she earned her bachelor’s degree in child psychology at the University of California, Davis. She joined the Elk Grove school district, and taught third and fifth grade classes and worked at the learning center of Union House Elementary School.

Chavez became interested in special education after becoming the adoptive parent of a girl with mosaic Down syndrome, and the biological mother of a son who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. She noted their challenges in the classrooms.

“I got two kiddos – one is off-the-chain brilliant, but he can’t socialize, and his understanding and language in general just had him so frustrated since his sensory diet was on overload all day long,” Chavez said. “And then I have another child and this classroom is very enriching for her and there are lots of pictures, but she struggled in school.”

After 16 years of working at an elementary school, she became a special education teacher and earned her master’s degree in the subject at National University.

“I wanted to make a difference, and as a parent, I felt like I was understanding what it was like to be on the other side of the table,” she said. 

Chavez recalled how a former student overcame challenges during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when the school district closed its campuses and shifted their classes online. Many students borrowed Chromebook computers for their classes, and their parents and teachers had the new task of learning how to operate the laptops and access online classes.

Chavez said that a student’s grandfather was struggling with his new Chromebook, but that did not discourage his grandson. 

“This particular student was the most optimistic kiddo I probably ever worked with,” she said. “He was like, ‘We’re going to figure this out!’ and he’s just cracking me up.”

Despite his academic troubles, the student still motivated himself to learn how to read. Chavez said that she advocated to keep him at Pinkerton, and she recalled that he evolved from only knowing how to read nine sight words to reading at the third-grade level when he left the school.

“It wasn’t me; I didn’t do anything magical with this kid other than show up every day, and I loved teaching him,” she said. “It brings tears to my eyes.”

Chavez summarized how education transforms her students.

“A lot of our kiddos come defeated and they hate school, and they feel like they’re not as smart as everyone else,” she said. “The reality hits them they are different, and everyone on this campus is different. It’s what you make of it and to just be you, and we’re going to figure out what we can do together in each and every area. And that’s it.”

Jamie Davis, fourth grade teacher, Union House Elementary School

Jamie Davis said that no two days are the same for her as a fourth-grade teacher at Union House Elementary School.

“I just love being around these students,” she said. “This age is fun because they’re independent workers, but they’re still kids – they like to play games, but they can handle the higher level of critical thinking.”

The educator recalled that she felt “stunned” when a large group of school and district administrators visited her classroom and announced that she was a Teacher of the Year. She was working with a small group of students in a workshop while they saw a line of people “that never seemed to end” stream into their room.

“There was a lot of excitement, surprise, and confusion for the fourth graders,” she said, while laughing.

Davis is an Elk Grove native who attended Feickert and Pleasant Grove elementary schools. It was in the third grade when she knew that she wanted to become a teacher. She recalled watching her teacher, Mrs. Lewis manage their class.

“I just vividly remember seeing things that students don’t typically notice by just taking note of the classroom management that my teacher was doing,” Davis said.

She went on to graduate from Sheldon High School and earn a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies at California State University, Sacramento. She started teaching as a student-teacher in the San Juan Unified School District.

Davis entered the teaching profession at a rough time when many teachers received layoff notices after the late 2000s recession impacted school district budgets. She worked as a part-time librarian at Joseph Sims Elementary School in Elk Grove before she eventually became an elementary teacher in the small Yolo County town of Esparto.

“I wanted to be back from the start, I wanted to be back in Elk Grove,” Davis said.

She noted that she always wanted to teach at a Title I school or a campus that receives additional federal funding to support its large population of students from low-income families. The teacher transferred to Union House Elementary in Sacramento’s Valley Hi neighborhood where 621 of the school’s 710 students lived in low-income households in the 2021-22 school year, according to a district report.

“The students don’t always get the same level of equity as they do in other schools,” Davis said about Title I schools. “You can be rewarded in any school, but I do see a level of value of what I can offer to these students. (It’s) to be that person in their lives that makes them feel seen, heard, respected, and treated like a human at the end of the day.”

The teacher said that her education philosophy focuses on student equity.

“Every student in every school deserves the same level of education and the same opportunities, and the same amount of clubs, the same college and career readiness, and the same dedicated teachers,” Davis said. (It’s) making sure that students feel safe, are building relationships, and understanding what my students are, and being culturally responsive.”

As a teacher, she said that her goal every year is to help her students find the drive and motivation to learn.

“The fourth-grade level is so powerful,” Davis said. “To see them put in the work and when they know they had great successes – it feels so good.”