We spoke with Stephen Uyechi from Sunrise Elementary School who was named 2021-22 LA Unified School District Teacher of the Year. Stephen teaches Special Education, moderate to severe, with a focus on life skills.

This award honors teachers with a strong commitment to their students, school, and community. The program spotlights positive aspects of education and pays tribute to LA Unified’s richly diverse teaching force. Teachers who can be nominated must be credentialed and have at least five years of teaching experience. Any LA Unified employee, parent, or student can nominate. 

Read about what we learned from this recently appointed LA Unified Teacher of the Year.

What does this award mean to you? 

It’s a huge honor to be nominated by a parent, and humbling at the same time, especially since we have so many excellent teachers here at Sunrise Elementary. There’s a saying, “As iron sharpens iron, so does one person sharpen another.” That’s how I feel about my family at Sunrise. I’m grateful to lead alongside outstanding teachers who are committed to their craft and care for our students, families, and school staff. After I received the award, I told the Sunrise faculty that I simply consider myself the flag bearer for an “Olympic” team of Sunrise teachers, each of whom is a champion in their own right. Even though my name is on this Teacher of the Year Award, each teacher here at Sunrise played a part in helping me become the person and teacher I am today, and so, a part of this award belongs to each of them as well. Thank you to all teachers, administrative team, therapists, custodial staff, parents, and community volunteers.

What are some ways in which you adapted the way you teach?

I don’t think I taught any differently, but I had to be better prepared to teach in a remote environment. There is no question that the challenges I faced in conducting remote classes made me a better teacher. I had to plan my lessons down to the minutest detail, and have multiple backup plans in case one or more of the websites I was using during my lessons crashed or was somehow unavailable. However, although I presented more website lessons during remote teaching sessions, I also found that there was no substitute for paper and pencil and hands-on learning. Students were more involved and actively engaged when they were being hands-on with their lessons, rather than simply clicking the correct answer on a computer.

Does anything stand out from new learnings implemented in your classroom during the pandemic?

Yes, now that I am back in the classroom I find myself utilizing more online resources. Remote teaching and the pandemic reinforced the importance of using different learning modalities — visual, aural, oral, kinesthetic. And I was reminded of the interplay between all communication modalities — listening, speaking, reading, writing, and touch/gestures — and trying to ensure that I provide balanced instruction in all these areas. But, the most critical new learning for me was to learn about and appreciate the challenges that my students, their parents, and other family members faced in their home environments during the pandemic. Whether it was lack of sleep/rest from changes in their routine, the stress of dealing with COVID-related or other medical issues, the lack of adequate time or space to create a quiet study environment, or in extreme cases, the struggle to meet the basic necessities of life. Being more aware of the challenges my students face in their home environments has helped me revise some of the lessons I present in class. My goal is to carry these lessons over into the home environment to help increase my students’ independence at home and alleviate some of the care-taking responsibilities of my students’ family members.

What was the most memorable thing a student ever said to you? 

Many of my students are non-verbal, but one of my most memorable moments was when a student said, “Mr. U, you rock!” and followed it up with, “I love you, Mr. U”.  It doesn’t get any better than that!

What or who inspired you to become a teacher?

I was bullied for two years as a middle school student, which influenced me to become a lawyer to fight for my rights and the rights of others. It took me 10 years of practicing law in Los Angeles to figure out I did not like to argue for a living. When I was contemplating a career change, my three older sisters who are teachers, along with my older brother’s lifelong association with two of his closest friends, both of whom are legally blind, were among the most significant people who influenced me to become a special education teacher.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think that as educators, we sometimes underestimate the power of collective learning. For example, we all have teaching strategies and best practices to share with each other. In the same way we encourage our students to take risks, we should encourage each other and persevere in spite of challenges and/or setbacks. I think a key component to helping a school’s entire faculty become better teachers is by developing a positive school climate where all students and staff feel physically and emotionally safe and supported. Our administrative team, led by Principal Barraza, excels at ensuring this is the case for Sunrise.

I would also like to extend my sincere gratitude to Melanie and Richard Lundquist for their tireless and extremely generous efforts and commitment, for over a decade, to improve public education in some of Los Angeles’ historically under-resourced neighborhoods through the founding of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. They’ve had a profound impact on so many LA Unified communities, and don’t receive nearly enough of the recognition they rightfully deserve.