Two Northbrook High School graduates have been named SBISD’s 2022 Elementary and Secondary Teachers of the Year.
Lorenza (Lori) Garay, librarian at Ridgecrest Elementary, is the Elementary Teacher of the Year. Secondary Teacher of the Year is Sara Russo, 12th grade social studies teacher at Stratford High School. Both teachers graduated from Northbrook and have enjoyed long teaching careers within the district.
Garay says the honor both surprised and humbled her.
“My teaching career has been a blessing and an amazing journey so far. I feel like I’m already living my best life. So, to get recognized for doing what I love is truly special,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to be an educator, and I was really inspired by teachers in my primary years. And then in high school, I took child development classes during my junior and senior years, and that experience gave me a good understanding of what teaching is like. I loved working with children.”
Garay notes that it was her dream to teach in Spring Branch ISD schools.
“This is where I grew up, and it’s so rewarding to be teaching here,” she adds. “I’m so pleased to be able to spotlight Ridgecrest in a positive way. Our students and community are so deserving, and our teachers are so amazing and inspiring.”
She began her teaching career as a pre-K assistant at Panda Path within the district. Garay then served as a pre-K teacher at BakerRipley and returned to the district in 2012, first as a fourth-grade teacher at Ridgecrest and then as its librarian.
As a librarian, Garay works primarily with Ridgecrest third through fifth grade students. She teaches four to five classes a day both in the library and in student classrooms. She often coordinates her lesson topics with what teachers are covering in class to help reinforce students’ learning experiences.
“Libraries are far more than just books. We have a lot of different learning materials here. Once students have access to information, I try to teach them what to do with that information, how to apply it,” she says. “And we strive to stock books that represent the wide diversity of our students. Books then become windows, mirrors and sliding doors for them to learn about themselves and others around them. Students also can become better people by learning empathy for the characters they’re reading about in books.”
Garay strives to build close bonds with her students because she believes it’s important to develop a rapport with them.
“They must know you care, and you need to listen to them. They can tell when someone is not sincere,” she says. “It’s also important to create an environment where kids feel free to make mistakes because they are learning.”
She was especially impressed with her students’ attitudes in the earlier days of the pandemic. They remained eager to learn, she says.
“They demonstrated perseverance and wanted to continue to learn. They rose to the occasion,” Garay adds.
Russo says she was also somewhat shocked to be named the Secondary Teacher of the Year and acknowledges that it is a significant honor.
“I don’t like a lot of attention usually. But I feel so fortunate to be teaching here, because I think I have an amazing village surrounding me,” she says. “I like to build relationships with colleagues, and I always feel like I have people I can turn to when I have questions.”
Russo, too, always thought teaching would be her preferred profession. Her parents wanted her to go to law school, but she realized she didn’t feel passionate about the field.
“I fell in love with teaching, and I realized I’d rather be doing something that I loved. Every day in teaching is different,” she says. “I’d always been good with kids. And I was so lucky to have amazing teachers who served as my role models.”
Naturally, Russo believes social studies is an extremely important course for students to study.
“Taking social studies courses helps students understand how our systems work and, ultimately, makes them more engaged citizens. Social studies can be so exciting and interesting, so I try to make it all come to life for them,” Russo adds.
She teaches three 1.5-hour social studies classes each day. Russo approaches teaching differently, and she strives to inspire learning through innovative ways.
“I do more than lecture. We play games, explore subjects from many different angles and try unusual ways to stimulate engagement. I also have them move around in the classroom, because this helps them process information and keeps things interesting.”
“I want to come across as “real” to my students. I also let them know what’s going on with me and my life as a way of connecting with them. And, if I’m having a bad day, it’s important for the kids to see me get past it,” she says. “The students are my family for a year, and I hope that the feeling goes beyond it. I’m honest and I make myself available. I try to give them my best. It’s important for them to know they’ve got an extra person—me—in their corner.”
Russo says it is particularly enjoyable to be teaching in the same district where she attended school.
“I went to Spring Branch elementary, middle and high schools. Spring Branch has been an integral part of my life. I know the traditions here, and it feels great to give back to my community,” she adds. “I try to go to most of the school games, especially softball. Spring Branch is a tight community, and I try to be active in it. This is home.”