Always learning, she earned ‘Teacher of the Year’ accolade

After 29 years with the Claremont Unified School District, Chaparral Elementary School teacher Karen Corrette has been named Teacher of the Year. The only surprising thing about the honor, say her colleagues, is that it didn’t happen sooner.

“She’s someone who should have gotten this years and years ago,” said fellow Chaparral teacher Leanna Prokop.

Ms. Corrette is considered a paragon of teaching, largely because of her refusal to rest on her laurels. Given her experience, she could almost teach her current crop of kindergarten and first-grade students with her eyes closed. Instead, she approaches the job with eyes wide open, always seeking new ways to instruct and inspire.  

“Karen is constantly evolving. She’s never satisfied with just the regular thing she’s done,” Ms. Prokop said.

Ms. Corrette received her teaching credentials from UC Irvine and a master’s degree from Azusa Pacific University, but her education has not stopped there. Her thirst for best teaching practices leads her to embrace innovative instruction methods and state-of-the-art technology, like the interactive white board and associated software.

When she’s not teaching, Ms. Corrette is poring through the internet for lesson plans and great ideas. “I have to tear myself away,” she admits. 

What spurs Ms. Corrette’s continual focus on professional development? Her motivation can be found on her attendance sheet. While the students listed are at varying levels of proficiency, all are immersed in the technology that permeates our culture.

“I think teaching today requires you to constantly engage kids at their own level,” Ms. Corrette said. “You have to be more engaging than just being in the classroom with books.”

That’s not to say that Ms. Corrette has anything against reading. A self-professed children’s lit junkie, she’s got books by the hundreds. During independent reading time, her students love to pick out a book and repair to a specially-constructed wooden two-story reading loft.  

Throughout the year, Ms. Corrette and her class transform the cozy structure to reflect the seasons. This winter, they decorated it like an igloo and, for Christmas, like a gingerbread house. For open house, the loft became a tree house and, for Halloween, it became a haunted house.

From the loft to the colorful student projects that pepper nearly every inch of wall space, Ms. Corrette’s commitment to art education is evident. This focus is in keeping with the atmosphere at Chaparral, where art is emphasized as a way to enhance the “whole child” educational mission.

For the students who—along with 2 pet turtles—call Room 2 home, the space is a refuge where they learn to love learning. The end of the school year is approaching and so is the wide-open expanse of summer. Like many kids, Cynthia Peters’ son Zachary is counting the days until the school year ends. Unlike many kids, though, the kindergartener isn’t looking forward to the end of his time with one of the district’s most charismatic teachers.

“He really, really hopes he gets Ms. Corrette next year,” she said.

Ms. Peters is crossing her fingers that Zachary gets his wish, because she loves the way Ms. Corrette fosters her son’s excitement about learning.

“She is absolutely amazing,” Ms. Peters said. “She brings in learning in so many ways and the kids all love her. They want to do well for her.”

It’s not just kids that have benefited from Ms. Corrette’s zest for education. She spent 4 years imparting teaching strategies to education students at the University of La Verne, and has mentored a number of student teachers.

Burnout does not seem to be a word in Ms. Corrette’s vocabulary. After school ends this summer, she will spend 2 weeks at a school in Kenya, sharing instructional techniques with teachers there and working with a crew of volunteers to set up a computer lab. Her philanthropic plans came about because her husband, also an educator, is on the board of Providence Ministries, the nonprofit organization that supports the school.

Traveling to Africa for the first time represents quite an adventure. Ms. Corrette is undaunted, though, partially because of her enthusiasm for education in all its forms but also because she is taking along a friend.

Ms. Prokop, who is retiring at the end of this year after 30 years with CUSD, is coming along to help with the training. The 2 women became close friends when they both taught fourth grade for many years, and after having their children grow up together.

Ms. Corrette is organizing Ms. Prokop’s retirement party. Though she’s only one year away from the same landmark, it’s likely that at least a few more groups of students will learn and thrive in this remarkable teacher’s classroom. 

 “I still feel inspired to teach every year. I’m still excited to start a new year,” Ms. Corrette said. “I’m not quite ready to give that up.”

—Sarah Torribio





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