By Alan Lopez
Correspondent, Alameda Times-Star
Growing up, Liza Young was encouraged to use her inquisitive mind and strong work ethic to make good money as a lawyer or businesswoman.
Instead, she followed her dream to become a fifth-grade teacher, which has paid off in other ways: She is the Alameda Unified School District's teacher of the year for 2011.
Young works at Washington Elementary School, a so-called Title 1 school where a higher proportion of the students are low-income.
Young got into teaching because she "wanted to change the world." She was inspired by her parents, who adopted her three younger siblings from Latin America and helped start an orphanage in India, she said.
"I like working with this population," she said in an interview. "I like working with students who are a little more high-need, who don't necessarily have all the support at home maybe because their parents don't speak English or maybe are working two jobs. I feel like they deserve to have high-quality teachers." Young, 30, is an Oakland native who studied to be an elementary schoolteacher while at Long Beach State University, where she earned a liberal arts degree. Later, she received her teaching credential from Cal State East Bay.
In eight years at Washington Elementary, she's had six principals and has taught five different grades. Such challenges would force many young teachers out of the profession, though Young said the experience has only made her stronger.
"I've always liked problem-solving, troubleshooting and burning the candle at both ends," she wrote in a paper after she was nominated for teacher of the year. "Teaching is considered a demanding job, and that's partly what I enjoy about it. I ask students to go above and beyond because I hold that same standard for myself."
According to a nomination letter from Washington Principal Judith Goodwin, Young teaches with an "ease and clarity well beyond her professional years. ... Liza's ability to collaborate with others is one of her greatest strengths. ... She is willing to listen, research and implement new instructional practices if they support student achievement."
"She works very long hours," wrote parent Emily Lloyd in a nomination letter. "There have been many times that I've come back to the school for a PTA meeting at 7 p.m. and have found her hard at work. She also responds quickly to parents via e-mail or telephone." Young's persistence has paid off in academic performance index test scores for her fifth grade class last year that were higher than other grades at the school.
"A lot of it is students felt confident and felt they were prepared for it ... They knew they could do the job that was put in front of them," she said.
And while Washington has a combined overall academic performance score lower than other Alameda schools -- it was 794 in 2010, according to the Alameda Unified website -- the school is meeting its growth goals set by the state, Young said.
For her part, Young said she believed eight years into her career is early to be receiving a teacher-of-the-year award. But she was happy to show that, like other Alameda schools, Washington school has excellent teachers.
"I feel like a beginning teacher," she said. "I guess as a teacher, the amount you learn each year -- I just feel like it was early. (But) it was a nice honor for school and staff."