Skip to main content

Cottonwood Heights Journal

Constantly learning, instilling challenges key to Canyons’ outstanding teacher

Aug 02, 2022 10:21AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

It had been a long night. Katie Tinoco had her high heels in her hands, walking barefoot on the red carpet that was placed in Hillcrest High’s commons for the parade of teachers, each representing their schools, excited to be recognized for their positive impact on Canyons School District’s 34,000 students.

Even at the late hour, Tinoco had a smile on her face even as the cameras and cell phones had faded to just those of family and friends.

Tinoco had just been announced she was Canyons School District’s teacher of the year. This month, the outstanding teacher will be putting on the finishing touches of lesson plans and room decorations before she greets a new group of second-graders.

“I originally did not want to be a teacher,” Tinoco said. “I wanted to be a pediatrician or do business. I was Sterling Scholar state runner-up for business and marketing and that’s the path I started when I first started college at BYU (Brigham Young University). Then, I got into my classes, and I just wasn't loving it. So, I did some reflecting on what do I really love, and I just kept coming back to I love learning, reading, helping people, working with kids. Those things together led me to teaching. Once I started the program, I never looked back. I knew teaching was what I was supposed to do. It's just an awesome profession.”

Now the Brighton High alumna who was a FBLA national champion is in her 12th year of teaching, eight of those at Draper Elementary.

“I loved school when I was a kid. I would go to school sick because I didn't want to miss school and then my teacher would have to send me home. I was that kid,” Tinoco said.

While her third- and sixth-grade teacher Janice Flanagan had a huge impact on her, Tinoco’s love is teaching second grade.

“It's just the sweet spot in my opinion. They're old enough that they have been in school and know what to do, but they're still young enough that they are still eager to learn. They're excited to be here,” she said. “And the amount of growth that second-graders make from the beginning of the year to the end of the year is just exciting to watch.”

However, Tinoco has taken Flanagan’s love of incorporating real-life learning in her teaching. This year, her students embraced that lesson when they read a story about writing petitions.

“After reading the story, I challenged my kids to write a petition and I gave them the example of how a student can go to his HOA (homeowners association) and ask for longer pool hours, with all his neighbors signing the petition. This year, my kids wrote a petition saying they wanted a class pet. They thought of all the reasons I could say no, and included that they’d pay for it, take care of it, clean its cage and take it home on breaks and weekends. They all signed it and so I told them that since they did all the work, we’ll get a class pet. So we have a hamster—Scout Cookie,” Tinoco said, adding that it was named by her student who is a Girl Scout and her family that stepped forward to buy the hamster. “The hamster will be in third grade with them next year and likely go all the way through fifth grade with them."

Tinoco’s class was part of the process when she was selected teacher of the year.

“The committee came in to observe our class and watched part of my morning meeting and part of my phonemic awareness lesson and part of my phonics lesson. My kids were like, ‘What's going on?’ I told them why the people were there, and the kids were really excited. I reminded them that ‘we’re like this always, it doesn't matter if there's someone in our room or not, because we're awesome all the time,’” she said.

It wasn’t an easy year for Tinoco. As a dual immersion teacher, she’s used to teaching two classes of 28 students on the English side while her colleague teaches them math in Mandarin. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic-related travel restrictions, he was detained in China, and she worked with several substitute teachers.

“We started the school year with what was supposed to be a long-term sub. I did a ton of extra work, but I also had a lot of support from the school’s Chinese team helping me create Chinese content. It’s tricky to teach two different classes and switch during the day, so we tried not to overwhelm her, but unfortunately, it was too much. She was a new mom and her husband got sick and she had to put her family first,” Tinoco said. “So, then our next long-term sub stayed till Christmas break. All of January was just one sub after another, and I constantly was reinforcing what they were learning. There always is a lot of collaboration, talking about the kids and where they're at and how they did on this and making sure we’re seeing the same things. But January was probably the hardest time just helping the kids and reassuring parents that the teacher was coming back because they were justifiably worried if their kids would be on the level to continue to the program. I’d tell them, ‘He's going to catch them up.” Nobody else could do what he's done with these kids. It's incredible. I'm very lucky to have him as a teaching partner.”

Draper Principal Christy Waddell appreciated Tinoco’s dedication.

“She did not complain once to me with the extra workload that she had. It was definitely a lot of hard work, and she has a little one at home. But she's still so professional and did everything she could because she wants the best for these kids,” she said.

When the April 19 awards night approached, Tinoco said her principal and second-grade team wanted to come support her.

“I told them, ‘You guys don't have to come. It’s going to be really late. I'm not going to win. Don't worry about it,” she said.

Disregarding her, they came as well as her parents, husband, and 16-month-old.

“I read through all the bios of all the teachers that have been nominated. I'm like, ‘They're so amazing, so incredible.’ And they're like, ‘Yeah, well, so are you,’” she recalled.

On stage, she was surprised when she was announced she was the elementary teacher candidate. But when she learned of the other two finalists—Brighton High chemistry teacher Nicole Shon and Mount Jordan Middle choir and theater director Skyler Bluemel—she thought the overall teacher of the year would be one of them.

“When the announcer started reading, and mentioned dual language, I knew it was me and I was really shocked, overwhelmed, really humbled, really grateful. It was a huge, huge surprise,” she said. “I feel like I do a good job in my classroom, but nobody goes into teaching to get awards and praise and attention. It's been overwhelming and just incredible. Everybody deserves to be honored like this. Teachers do so much and make such a difference.”

During Waddell’s first observation of her in the classroom, she knew there was something special about Tinoco.

“When I first got here five years ago, I knew right away that Katie was a good teacher. You can tell anytime you walk by her class,” Waddell said. “She is so calm and positive; the kids are all doing what they're supposed to be doing. She's so kind to them, but she also has standards for them to reach. The kids, they all just love her. I mean it's seriously a very good place to be, in her classroom.”

Meanwhile, after the ceremony, her toddler was making his own fun.

“He is having such a great time carrying around my giant check. He thinks it’s the new coolest toy ever,” she said.

The next morning, many students already knew Tinoco was Canyons’ teacher of the year. At before-school choir practice, the students gave her a round of applause.

Second-grade teacher Madison Ellingson directs the choir with Tinoco.

“Katie is just an amazing educator and is always thinking of her students and what they need the most,” Ellingson said. “She’s always doing something meaningful with her students that is going to make a difference in their academics or their life. She's really mindful of the growth of her students and that’s with each of her 56 students. She knows exactly what progress each kid is making and how close they are to their end of year goals. As a teammate, she has some awesome ideas and is always willing to share them and be supportive. When we collaborate, she always brings in, ‘Let's make this a little bit deeper or let's add a component that would make it a challenge for our students.’ She has such a positive energy that we love and that the kids love. They were so excited to congratulate her.”

Once school began, Waddell made an announcement.

“My class cheered and was asking me what it’s like to be the national teacher, and I'm like, ‘Whoa, whoa! We go to state first,’” she said, adding that submitting her state application was on her summer schedule. “They’re very much invested in this.”

As Canyons’ teacher of the year, she received a crystal award as well $1,000 and a gift basket of prizes and gift cards to area businesses.

It’s been a far cry from her first four years teaching at a charter school where she created her own curriculum, paid for most every material she used in class and didn’t have a support system.

“I saw that Canyons was in line with the type of professional that I want it to be. I wanted to be in a place that was going to encourage and support my desire to always try to be better. I’ve earned my master’s in education from SUU (Southern Utah University) and I’ve been supported each step of the way,” she said. “There’s always learning involved with being a teacher. Even with this award, which is a huge overwhelming honor, it’s not like OK, I am now the ultimate teacher that I could ever be. It’s never like that with teaching. You can always be tweaking and changing and bettering and trying new things and with every class. Every class brings different challenges and exciting things.”