What makes a Classroom Hero? Is it putting in extra hours? Finding a creative way to teach a lesson? Creating a meaningful bond with with the class?
Students in Lodi schools turned in hundreds of nomination forms answering that very question, and this year's Classroom Heroes have been selected.
High school division
Todd DeGrandmont is a science teacher at Lodi High School, where he has been breaking down complex ideas and equations for 23 years.
Does he prefer teaching physics or chemistry?
"Yes," he said, with a straight face. "I just love knowing how stuff works."
His interest in teaching was sparked during a college chemistry class. Another student asked for tutoring help after DeGrandmont was the only one in the class to earn 100 percent on a test. As a starving college student, he took on the job.
He found out he had an innate ability to take complex topics and explain them in layman's terms. The other student's grade jumped from and F to a B.
"It gave me such a good feeling. That's what I wanted to do," he said.
In class, DeGrandmont teaches to the masses, choosing to present the lesson in the way he thinks will work best for the most people. But before and after school, his classroom door is open to any student having trouble with a concept.
DeGrandmont's pickup truck can be found in the school's parking lot from 6:30 a.m. to nearly 5 p.m. on most days. He even gives out his cellphone number for students to call him with questions until 7 p.m. on school nights.
"I try to teach students in their language, their lingo," he said. "Sometimes I can't believe I get to do this job."
Outside of lessons on chemical bonds and lab projects, DeGrandmont is known for his legendary April Fool's Day pranks and the retaliation they inspire among other teachers.
Styrofoam cups are the hallmark of an ongoing prank war between DeGrandmont and a fellow teacher. They are stapled to the wall, hung from the ceiling, or secured together and filled with water, requiring hours of set up and dismantling time.
Earning the Classroom Hero award came as a surprise to DeGrandmont, who insists he is just doing what he loves to do.
"I'm here to serve students. Recognition from students means more to me than from anywhere else. It means a lot when students realize I'm doing more than a job, that I believe in what I do," he said.
Elementary school division
Thida Pickard energizes her fifth-grade students with a motto they chant every day.
"We never settle for less, we always strive for success!" they yell.
The Lawrence Elementary School teacher has used that motto in her classroom since her second year of teaching.
A lot of students lacked motivation, she said. Sticking to the classroom motto is about belief.
"It's a chance to believe in themselves and say it out loud," she said.
She spent her first five years at Creekside Elementary School, but was laid off and later rehired at Sutherland Elementary. She came to Lawrence last year.
Originally, she thought she would be a pediatrician.
"My father was a teacher, so that idea repelled me somewhat," she said.
While studying at University of California, Davis for pre-med, she spent some time interning in the emergency room. That experience made her realize that working in medicine was not the route she wanted to take to help improve children's lives.
"(Teaching is) exciting every day. The challenges make it exciting, the unpredictability, and just working with children is always exciting," said Pickard.
Her classroom is all about celebrating successes. Minor victories are met with a silent celebration. Students can jump, wiggle and wave their hands in joy, but they have to stay silent. It helps to get their energy out with little distraction for other classes.
She prefers to teach fifth-graders because they have reached a pivotal age.
"I feel like I can impact them highly," she said. "They're just starting to see there's a world out there, and they are part of it."
Hearing her name read out as this year's elementary Classroom Hero was surreal, she said, and she was moved by the award.
"I feel really honored because it's from the students. They weren't forced to select a teacher. It is making me feel that I am making a real impact in their lives," she said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.