Photo Gallery

By Kristina Pritchett

Rob Harris never knows what to expect when he walks through the halls of Dana Hills High School—and that’s the way he likes it.

There could be students belting out a song in the hallway, the cheerleading squad could be practicing around the corner or a dance number could be underway. These are some of his favorite moments, he said, because it shows his students the school is alive with energy.

Using the liveliness of the school is part of why the Capistrano Unified School District selected Harris, a special education teacher at Dana Hills, as the High School Teacher of the Year.

“I can’t believe they picked me,” he said sitting in his classroom moments after his students left. He looked around the room, with photos of past and present students, Disney posters and schedules for the students hanging on the walls.

Harris was surprised with the award last week, where else, but in the halls outside his classroom at Dana Hills. Harris and a few other teachers were getting ready to board a bus to Disneyland with his students and members of the Best Buddy Program. What he didn’t know was that school and district officials were planning the big surprise.

“We had about 60 Buddies and 35 students, so probably around 100 kids; we do this trip every year,” Harris said recalling the surprise. “We were fired up.”

He said he came into the room and the staff told him to sit while they organized everything in the hall.

“We were giving orientation about how the day would go, and (after that), I walked out into the hallway and there they were.”

After a brief celebration, the group stood in front of the banner and posed to take photos, which he said was an exciting but emotional moment.

“[The students] definitely understood what was happening, and they were happy,” Harris said with a smile. “It was emotional for some, including me and maybe only me but it was exciting. They could tell these principal types were coming in and had a banner with them, they were so stoked.”

He added that the kids in the Best Buddy program were surprised as well.

Harris has been at Dana Hills High School for 12 years in the special education department but has been with CUSD since 1994. Previously, he worked as a job technician with the Department of Rehabilitation, Regional Center and CUSD Education Specialists to help fit the client’s aptitudes, education levels, physical abilities and career goals.

Harris teaches a variety of subjects—math, writing, reading, history—but he said he simply enjoys teaching kids every day.

“This is by far the best school because the students here treat everyone so kind,” Harris said.

Dana Hills Principal Jason Allemann said what sets Harris apart is the fact that he’s an advocate for his students.

“He makes sure they can have the most authentic high school experience,” Allemann said. “He makes sure they are participating socially with other high school students.”

Harris mentioned he enjoyed seeing his kids with the other students in the school.

“The football coaches have been able to see the good personalities of our kids. The music teachers work with our students and then let them perform at Oldies Night,” Harris said. “Our dance teacher includes them in dances.”

Joel Tapper, a teacher that also works in the special education department and co-advises the Best Buddy Program with Harris, said he is a gifted special education teacher.

“Rob’s total commitment to his students is exemplified by continual communication with parents and teachers from the past,” Tapper said. “After 23 years with CUSD, he still gets emotional at graduation; he is continually tinkering and striving to better perfect his classroom. He cares.”

In Harris’ classroom, every day is different.

“All the subjects I teach relate to preparing for the next step,” Harris said. “Whether it’s reading, writing, or learning about history, it’s all related to being in the community I think.”

He added that the students learn about reading safety signs, being able to socialize with others, exchange information if needed, and Harris shows them how to apply those lessons outside the classroom.

“If we’re learning about money, we can go out on Wednesday and use real money,” Harris said. “It encourages communication, and they get to see other people using social skills.”

Every Wednesday the class takes a trip to apply the skills learned in the class, like how to use public transportation.

“Don’t forget this Wednesday is The Habit,” Harris said of an upcoming trip, as a group of his students walked out the door on Monday. One student grinned at the thought of the cheeseburgers.

On Thursdays, Harris and two students head to Ocean Ranch and work at Trader Joe’s.

“We’ve been doing that for about 10 years,” Harris said. “The manager is supportive and at this point we know what’s expected of us. The students will say, ‘Hello,’ and check themselves in.”

Harris said the students decide what they want to do that day and then get to work in their uniform and name tags. After work, they’re rewarded.

“I want them to learn that work pays,” Harris said. “We’re provided with Yogurtland cards, and they get to get something under $6 so they’re choosing what to add, weighing it and seeing how much it comes to.”

On Fridays, the students head into the kitchen and learn to cook.

“I want to prepare them for as much as possible,” Harris said.

Harris said the beginning steps of the Teacher of the Year process was difficult.

“They gave me an application…it was fun to reflect and difficult to write,” Harris said. “I still can’t believe I got picked.”

Throughout the afternoon inside Harris’ classroom, he said he was humbled by the award and made sure to mention his co-workers a number of times. He even joked that he won the award based on sheer familiarity—he’s been at Dana Hills for a while and wears a blue shirt. But, his colleagues say he received the honor on the merits of his teaching.

“Even though we are the same age, I feel he is a mentor to me,” said Tapper. “Personally, I feel I won the lottery to be able to work alongside Rob. He believes our program should always be ‘student first, always, period.’”

Harris will represent CUSD at the Orange County Department of Education Teachers of the Year program, where four teachers will be selected to move on to the California Department of Education Teacher of the Year program.

Video Courtesy of Capistrano Unified School District

About The Author Dana Point Times

comments (0)

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>