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UCPS announces 2024-2025 Teacher of the Year finalists

Fridays are like the finish line of the week, where people start feeling excited about the weekend ahead. It is when everyone gears up for relaxation and fun after a busy week of work or school. On Friday, March 8, 10 Union County Public Schools teachers received outstanding news that added an extra dose of happiness to the start of their weekend. 

Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan, senior leaders and Board of Education members had balloons and signs in hand to surprise teachers with a big announcement. The teachers were initially confused by the unexpected visitors. However, their confusion quickly turned into excitement and joy when they learned they were finalists for the 2024-2025 Teacher of the Year award. 

"I'm shocked, and it's definitely a great Friday," said Shelley Gordon from Parkwood High. "My teaching style is hands-on. I always like to ensure my students are engaged and having fun while learning. I hope they carry these skills outside of school and into post-secondary to use them in real life."

As the excitement lingered at Parkwood High, little did Casey Griffin at Antioch Elementary know she was about to be surprised, too.

"I was honestly astonished and speechless when everyone walked into my room. I love working here and I love all the support I get from my admin and peers. It's an honor to be recognized," said Griffin. 

Like she usually does, Lauren Zalenski was teaching a science lesson at Sun Valley Middle. She had no idea today would be a little different. There was a pause as the superintendent and others walked into her classroom. Once she realized what was happening, she smiled from ear to ear. 

"I'm thrilled. I enjoy my job 100 percent and I do it for the students. They are the reason," said Zalenski. "I'm kind of old school in a way, but at the same time, I try to bring as much excitement to the curriculum to get them engaged and excited about learning."

Arriving at Piedmont Middle, the group headed to Amy Woods' classroom. Woods' eyes widened in disbelief as she caught on to what was happening before her.

"I love this profession and my students fiercely," said Woods. "I wake up every day and get to do what I love. I am shaking, surprised, shocked and feeling so honored. I feel like I am going to cry."

When Jonathan Deese's students at Forest Hills High heard the announcement, there was no shortage of celebratory claps. 

"This is awesome and totally unexpected," said Deese. "I think I've gotten to this point because I'm open, honest and real with my students and peers. I think it makes all the difference in the world. My favorite part of teaching is sharing my life experiences with my students, especially the hands-on work in the shop."

The finalists were selected from 53 school-based Teacher of the Year winners. The winner will be announced during an awards program May 9.

Congratulations to the following Teacher of the Year finalists:

Casey Griffin - Antioch Elementary
Casey Griffin is a fifth-grade teacher at Antioch Elementary. A graduate of the State University of New York at Cortland and LeMoyne College, she has been an educator since 2014. Griffin teaches the power of "yet." That means even if her students can't do something now, they can work on it and get there eventually. She helps them feel confident by showing them ways to keep trying and not giving up. They also talk a lot about character—like being kind and brave. "When we recognize the characteristics that best make up our students, we become more knowledgeable of how to best fit their needs."



Jon Hidalgo - Central Academy of Technology and Arts (CATA)
Jon Hidalgo is a Career and Technical Education teacher at CATA. A graduate of Northwestern State University and Grand Canyon University, he has been an educator for 17 years. Hidalgo believes all students can succeed, which shapes his vision for a successful future for UCPS graduates. He enjoys hearing from successful graduates who return to share their experiences with current students. It reinforces the importance of the concepts he teaches daily. "As educators, it is our job to prepare the young people that we are tasked to teach to impart skills that not only will lead them to success in our particular class, but also skills that will prepare them for life."



Jessica Silva - East Elementary
Jessica Silva is a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teacher in the Health Sciences Academy at East Elementary. A graduate of Central Michigan University and the University of North Carolina Charlotte, she has been an educator for over 20 years. Silva acknowledges the uniqueness of each student, employing an inquiry-based approach where they collaborate, utilize their strengths and actively engage in problem-solving through hands-on experiences. "As a student in my class, you will learn that you are valuable and uniquely individual. You will learn to become adaptable, a creative problem solver, and to impact the world around you."



Jonathan Deese - Forest Hills High
Jonathan Deese is an agriculture teacher at Forest Hills High. A graduate of North Carolina State University, he has been an educator since 2012. Deese stresses hands-on learning and cross-curricular practices to develop student understanding. He partners with the automotive department for joint projects and advanced studies courses that expand students' experiences and build connections with business leaders, recognizing networking as crucial for success. "Even though a teacher can be knowledgeable on a topic, only a truly effective teacher can embed information so deeply into students that they cannot only comprehend that information but be able to demonstrate it through the production of a hand-built project."



Amy Kopcznski - Health Sciences Academy (HSA) at Monroe Middle
Amy Kopcznski is a mathematics teacher at HSA at Monroe Middle. A graduate of Eastern Michigan University and the University of North Carolina Charlotte, she has been an educator since 2003. Kopcznski believes that teaching is a perfect combination of science and art. Educators who successfully blend research findings with creative expression in the classroom create an enriched learning environment for their students. Under her guidance, students develop trust, appreciate individuality and develop a deep love for learning. "I quickly learned that I must be willing to go outside my comfort zone, try new things and never stop adding to my teaching toolbox."



Sara Howarth - Monroe High
Sara Howarth is a science teacher at Monroe High. A graduate of the College of New Jersey and the University of North Carolina Charlotte, she has been an educator since 2018. Howarth teaches by empowering students through knowledge and inquiry. She models positive behavior and builds self-confidence, creating a supportive environment where students can explore, learn and grow. "I help students build their confidence by celebrating mistakes in the classroom, including my own, and then talk about the possible ways we can rethink the task, so we do not make the same mistakes again."



Shelley Gordon - Parkwood High
Shelley Gordon is an Exceptional Children's transition to adulthood teacher. A graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Gardner-Webb University, she has been an educator since 2003. Gordon prioritizes student support and practical skill-building through innovative, group-based teaching strategies. She values community involvement for outside-the-classroom preparedness. "My students may have different skills, abilities and characteristics, but they will have successful futures upon becoming a UCPS graduate."



Amy Woods - Piedmont Middle
Amy Woods is a language arts teacher at Piedmont Middle. A graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and Union University, she has been an educator since 2004. Wood prioritizes a student-led learning environment that builds lifelong learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. She creates a classroom community where every student feels valued, loved and safe to take risks. "Every student should feel safe and encouraged to share thoughts and ideas, to make mistakes and grow through their productive struggle and peer interactions."



Yaronda Kilgo - Rock Rest Elementary
Yaronda Kilgo is a kindergarten teacher at Rock Rest Elementary. A graduate of Belmont Abbey College and Grand Canyon University, she has been an educator since 2017. Kilgo's teaching style prioritizes meeting students' basic needs and supporting social-emotional development alongside academics. Using whole-brain teaching techniques, Kilgo sets high expectations, encourages peer teaching, and empowers students to manage their emotions through mindfulness and sensory strategies. "Throughout our day, I ask my scholars, 'Are you ready?' Their reply with kindergarten gusto and full belief, 'We were born ready!'"



Lauren Zalenski - Sun Valley Middle
Lauren Zalenski is a science teacher at Sun Valley Middle. A graduate of Michigan State University, she has been an educator since 2008. Zalenski's teaching style focuses on building relationships, setting high expectations and developing lifelong skills. Through diverse teaching strategies, Zalenski ensures equal opportunities for all students, celebrating their achievements while promoting individual growth. "When I don’t know the answer to a question, or I make mistakes in front of them, I own it so they can see that learning is a never-ending process."



View the gallery below for photos of the surprises.