Megan Gross, a teacher at Del Norte High School in the Poway Unified School District, one of two CFT members recognized as a California Teacher of the Year, credits her union with having her back.

“I feel like they’re very supportive,” she said about San Diego County’s Poway Federation of Teachers. “They’ve been a great support to both our department and our school.”

A special education teacher for the last nine years, Gross worked at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities after college. She said she loved their joy and work ethic, and they would talk about how they loved their teachers and their friends at school. That led her to her career in special education. 

For the last three years Gross, who has also been chosen as state candidate for the National Teacher of the Year, has taught an autism spectrum disorder special day class. She wants to provide opportunities for kids of all abilities to study together, and her school administration has emphasized that inclusion is important. So Gross decided she would make sure kids with disabilities were included in mainstream classes. The first year they joined in physical education and some general education classes, and every year she asks for a little more, like civics and foreign languages. 

“Not only do my students benefit, but so do the others,” she said. “If a student (in the mainstream classes) grows up to have a child with disabilities, there won’t be that fear factor so much, or if one of them becomes a CEO, they might hire someone remembering their classmate who brought unique qualities.”

Gross also wants her students to experience working collectively on projects, which they choose, such as making valentines for senior citizens and starting a schoolwide campaign, “Socktober” to collect socks and blankets for homeless people. 

To share ideas with others, Gross and her former mentor teacher, Jennifer Kurth, wrote a book together, The Inclusion Toolbox, which gives teachers ways to work toward inclusion, one step at a time.

Isela Lieber is an English and ESL science teacher at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She has a lunch group on Fridays where students have pizza and talk about college requirements, scholarships, and 
AB 540, a state law letting undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school attend college at resident-rate tuition. Recently, the president of the club told Lieber that before joining, he had pictured himself dropping out of high school and going to work at the local McDonald’s. 

“He says now he doesn’t worry that he’s undocumented,” Lieber said. “He said, ‘I know I’m going to make it because of my teacher.’” 

This kind of dedication and attention to students is one reason Lieber, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles, is a California Teacher of the Year. Her family in Ecuador did laundry and cleaned houses for a living. No one in her family had gone to college or graduated from high school. When she came to the United States as a teenager, people helped her to get a scholarship to California State University at Northridge. She became a teacher to try and give others the same opportunities she’d gotten.

Lieber spent four years teaching at a middle school, then worked as an instructional specialist — which she loved, she says, but she wanted to return to the classroom. Her school is more than 90 percent Latino and about 60 percent of the students are immigrants. For her, teaching is an act of social justice, with the opportunity to create a college culture for her students and be an agent of change. Being a member of a union gives her confidence she can do her job well, she says. 

“Our union chapter chair is very involved,” she said. “I feel protected and my rights are protected.”

Lieber, a voracious reader, would also like to write. “My plan is to write a couple of books,” she said. “I want to tell my story, as a legacy for my kids.”

QUICK TAKES: From our teachers of the year

Hardest part of the job 

Gross: Making sure lessons are meaningful for the students, and they feel confident about learning 

Lieber: Balancing being someone kids can talk to with holding high expectations as a teacher

Best part of the job

Gross: That “ah-ha” moment when students do something on their own and see the relevance it has to their own lives

Lieber: Making a real difference in students’ lives 

I love my union because…

Gross: I had a specific situation where I needed support and I got a phone call back the next day. It was really reassuring — they’ll not only fix it for you, they’ll fix it for others. 

Lieber: I have a professional organization that values my work and is going to fight for me.

— By Emily Wilson, CFT Reporter