Catherine Stelling was recognized by her colleagues as this year’s Teacher of the Year for the Bret Harte Union High School District.
“It’s gratifying because it came from the staff,” Stelling said. “For them to acknowledge how hard I work, that’s enough for me.”
In lieu of basking in the limelight, Stelling wanted to share about the work of her students.
“I look at these guys and see that they’ve done some amazing things,” she said.
In addition to teaching social science, Stelling is also the adviser to the senior class, overseeing all senior milestone events and senior projects.
She has been amazed by the effort many of her students invest in their projects. Several seniors have chosen to give back to organizations that invested in them. Others have opted to teach lessons to elementary and middle school students in skills ranging from Spanish to agriculture to art.
“You see kids succeed where they never thought they could,” Stelling said. “They find skills they never thought they had. There’s strength in that.”
Stelling said students also learn to communicate effectively with adults and campaign for their projects.
“It’s a really eye-opening experience for them,” she said. “Some of them get a huge benefit from it.”
Stelling has heard complaints about the time-consuming projects being required during senior years when students already have a lot on their plates, but she thinks the timing is just right.
“This is what life is like,” she explained. “Life gets busy as an adult. The better we prepare our students, hopefully, the easier life will be for them.”
And for many of the students, the rewards are worth the effort.
“Generally speaking, they’re very proud of what they’ve accomplished,” she said. “They deserve the credit for it.”
Stelling has managed the senior projects since the program’s inception eight years ago. New this school year, she has also taken on the leadership class.
She said her colleagues have been incredibly supportive of this new role and her work in general.
“I love Bret Harte,” she said. “The people who work here are great people. Sometimes they butt heads, naturally, but these are all people who truly care about the students.”
As for herself, Stelling decided to become a teacher when she was in eighth grade.
“You know how you have that one teacher? The one who makes the difference? That’s what does it,” she said. “You think, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do with my life.’”
Granted, the teacher instructed math, but Stelling had a knack for history, so she pursued an education in that subject at California State University, East Bay. After earning a bachelor’s degree, she received a teaching credential in social studies from San Francisco State University.
Immediately after graduating, she moved to Calaveras County and began teaching at Bret Harte in 1997. Apart from a one-year sabbatical, she has been at Bret Harte since then.
And her students are glad she is still at the school.
“I think she’s a really good government teacher,” said senior Sam Bertolino. “She’ll go over things really thoroughly, and if you don’t get it, she’ll always help you. And with leadership, she’s really organized. She gets things done.”
Riley Gorman, a sophomore, appreciates her sense of balance.
“She knows how to be funny, but at the same time, she can be serious,” he said. “She knows how far to push us, which is what a great teacher should know how to do.”
English Department Head Andrew Reese – whose classroom neighbors Stelling’s – said he was pleased that Stelling was selected as Teacher of the Year.
“Cathy took on different challenges this year,” he said. “She was able to rally all her energy and really create an integrated instruction path that was, frankly, shocking to all of us and really impressive.”
As Reese put it, Stelling has the potential to be to her students what her eighth-grade math teacher was to her.
“Cathy is one of those teachers who can take a volume of information and make it meaningful to seniors who are sometimes struggling to stay focused,” he said. “She makes sure all the topics get covered and she teaches with kids in mind.”