Esencia K-8 School teacher Leslie Whitaker was instructing her students as usual in her classroom on April 27 when she got a surprise.
Representatives from the Capistrano Unified School District and Orange County Department of Education walked in to inform Whitaker that she was one of six recipients for the OCDE Teacher of the Year awards.
While being recognized by fellow educational professionals left her speechless, Whitaker was also overwhelmed and “really excited” to see her family (including her son, who attends Esencia K-8 in Rancho Mission Viejo) in her classroom to celebrate the occasion.
“It is a pretty amazing feeling to be honored in this way,” Whitaker said. “I think there’s so many amazing teachers out there, so to have this moment in time is pretty incredible.”
Whitaker is the only CUSD teacher who is a finalist for this year’s countywide awards. The six finalists will go on to be honored in November with cash prizes during a gala at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim and have a chance to apply for the California Teacher of the Year award in August, an OCDE news release said.
Whitaker is no stranger to awards, as she was also a state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2020 and 2022.
Her family kept this year’s distinction a secret.
“Actually, the night before, I saw an article about the OC Artist of the Year,” Whitaker said. “I just saw OC of the Year and I said, ‘Oh, they already announced it.’ I just figured I’d find out in a newspaper article. It was funny—it was the very next day that all these people came, and I was, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ ”
Whitaker said seeing her family in her classroom, including her in-laws, was a shock since they usually don’t visit where she works.
She has been teaching in CUSD since 1999 and worked as a teacher at various schools, including Wagon Wheel Elementary School in Coto de Caza and Chaparral Elementary School in Ladera Ranch.
“I worked as a coach down at the district office, a math coach,” Whitaker said. “I worked at OCDE on a special project, mostly supporting/coaching in math.”
Whitaker was on the planning committee for Esencia K-8, which opened in 2018, and is the lead teacher for third grade on campus.
“Also, I just support anyone in the school that wants support,” she said.
To that end, Whitaker maintains an open-door policy with her classroom—meaning other teachers and leaders from the district and county are welcome to come in and see what goes on.
“I do mentor teachers a lot. I’ve had 19 student-teachers in my career,” she said. “I work a lot with UCI. I’ve had entire UCI classes come in and watch me teach, so they can see effective math practices.”
Doing so helps people realize what kids are capable of in terms of learning, according to Whitaker.
“Sometimes, we get stuck in what we think they can or cannot do,” she said. “When you see it happening live, when you see how kids know how to have respectful conversations, they can use academic language, they engage in each other’s ideas and they’re comfortable with it—when people see that live, they see something that is attainable.”
While walking around the Esencia campus, Whitaker is prone to checking on and being greeted by students. The kids are what she likes about being a teacher.
“I tell the kids that every morning,” Whitaker said. “It doesn’t matter how tired I feel. When I see them, I’m ready for my A game. They bring the smiles to me.”
She checks in with her students during the day and teaches them ways to bring up their mood if they start the day tired and not feeling their most energetic.
“They’re my inspiration,” Whitaker said. “They help me be a better teacher. My whole goal is impact and impacting education as a whole. One of the pieces I love about teaching is I’m constantly learning.”
That learning includes finding out what kids need and what she needs to do to improve.
“I’m learning from the kids about how they see different ideas and different areas of the curriculum, and how I can better craft their tasks and what they do to engage with their learning to suit what they need,” Whitaker said.
The atmosphere at Esencia K-8 is like a family to Whitaker.
“I feel like that’s another thing that translates into the classroom,” she said. “We’re here together. We talk about how we are this special community and that we’re proud to be in this community and what it means to a responsible citizen in this community.”
As for what’s on the horizon, Whitaker is looking forward to the fall banquet in Anaheim and plans to apply for the state award.
“I’m just trying to take each moment as it comes,” she said. “I’m not sure I even see the trajectory clearly, but I am very excited about having this opportunity to represent our school and our district—and our county now.”