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By Shawn Raymundo
When San Clemente High Principal Chris Carter paid English teacher Margi Westling a visit to her classroom during the lunch hour on Wednesday, Feb. 10, she assumed it was to discuss a work-related concern she had brought to him hours earlier.
“I thought he was coming to talk about that. He said, ‘I need you to come with me,’ ” she recalled.
But when they walked outside, she could see in the courtyard a group of close work friends and district officials, as well as her husband and one of their four children, gathered for the surprise of her teaching career.
“We walked outside, and in the courtyard, I looked down at all these people,” said an elated Westling—the Capistrano Unified School District’s recipient for High School Teacher of the Year.
“It was quite a shock,” she said of the honor and surprise celebration. “It means the world to me; I put a lot into my teaching and I kind of just live under the radar … never really thought about receiving Teacher of the Year, let alone the district’s Teacher of the Year.”
Westling, who teaches English for the sophomore and senior grade levels, started her career in education in 1987, when San Clemente High School hired her. She’s never worked anywhere else since—an aspect of her tenure of which she’s particularly proud.
“I’ve always been at SC High … I feel that I’ve built a home here; feel like I have this community around,” she said. “I never wanted to leave.”
Regarding her teaching style and what about it has resonated with both students and her colleagues, Westling said she works to make sure her students feel heard in her class, wanting them “to feel like they have a home in my class.”
Every year, each CUSD school recognizes one of their own as a Teacher of the Year. Among those honorees, the district also selects an elementary, middle and high school instructor for districtwide Teachers of the Year. The three teachers go on to compete for the Orange County Teacher of the Year award.
“I have had the unique opportunity to work with this incredible individual as both a parent and administrator for the past six years,” Carter wrote of Westling to CUSD’s selection committee. “In each of these capacities, I have been impressed with her passion and commitment to creating an exceptional educational experience for all of our students be it academic, athletic, or extracurricular.”
Westling’s award marks the first time in six years that an instructor from SC High was selected as the district’s Teacher of the Year. The last time was in 2015, when fellow English teacher Wendy Washington received the honor.
Washington, who’s no stranger to the award, having won it twice in her tenure at SC High, also submitted a letter in support of Westling to the district’s selection committee.
“A woman of heart and integrity, this (Teacher of the Year honor) has earned my strong recommendation,” wrote Washington, who started teaching at SC High the same year as Westling. “She is an integral part of our school community and, over the past thirty years, has become my best friend. I cannot imagine our school or my life without her expertise and kindness.”
Washington also praised Westling for her commitment to social justice, noting that for the past six years, Westling has taught a course called “Tolerance.”
“A person working toward the equal treatment of all people, she took over the program and grew it to two sections, recruiting a variety of speakers to share their experiences regarding tolerance in all aspects of life from racism to mental health to sexual orientation,” Washington wrote.
Westling on Thursday, Feb. 11, touched on the very subject of tolerance and inclusivity when asked what lessons and takeaways she’s always hoped her students learn by the end of every school year—aside from the curriculum.
“I think the biggest lesson that I would like them to learn is they all need to treat each other with respect, both inside and outside of the classroom,” Westling said. “Everyone has dignity and should be treated with dignity and respect.”
“No matter if they’re of a different ethnicity or if they’re of a different religion or they’re of the LGBTQ+ community, everyone should be treated in a way that they would like to be treated,” she continued. “More or less, that’s what I want them to learn when they leave the classroom.”
A day after being awarded Teacher of the Year, Westling said that she still felt overwhelmed by it all.
“It’s very surreal to me,” Westling said. “I feel like so many people deserve this honor, and the fact that it’s been bestowed on me is really, really heartwarming, and I’m overwhelmed by it.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.