The bell rings. Johansen High teens amble out of Debbie Sessa’s French class as she calls out instructions and reminders. After a beat or two, the traffic flow reverses and the next class arrives to greetings, quick questions on how it’s going and a cheer to a student who’s been absent.
Even passing time counts in Sessa’s class, a chance to make those casual connections she sees as essential to learning.
“It’s not what you teach them, it’s that you show them you care. It’s good, at the beginning and end of class, to check in,” said Sessa, the newly named California League of High Schools 2015 Teacher of the Year.
Asked why they thought she earned the honor, teens in the 37-student class said it’s because she has a good sense of humor, as well as heart. Interest in French has waned at many high schools, but Sessa has five full classes.
“She doesn’t make the lectures boring,” said Zulema Reynoso, a junior. Beside her, Stephanie Isidro agreed. “She’s the reason I want to come to school,” she said.
“It’s the way she acts around people, the way she cares,” said Raul Gallegos.
Sessa, however, said she sees herself as the representative for a school and a district that’s raising the bar. “I really think it could have been a lot of teachers,” she said. “If you take away one thing, I want people to know it’s better than Debbie Sessa. It’s about all that’s going on at Johansen and in Modesto City Schools.”
Being nominated by Principal Nathan Schar was the key part, she said. “From there on out, it kind of became a speech contest,” Sessa said with typical candor.
For his part, Schar said, nominating his school’s foreign-language department chairwoman and leadership team member was an easy choice. “Debbie is outspoken and passionate, and her input has proven invaluable on several occasions,” Schar said.
“Ultimately, I believe Debbie’s wisdom is grounded in her commitment to teaching for all of the right reasons. Debbie is here for the kids,” he said.
Zipping through verb conjugation in class, Sessa kept a bilingual patter running: Question. Discuss answer. Quick tips. Check who got it. Repeat.
Drawing related words from English and Spanish, which she taught first, Sessa anchored new vocabulary to familiar ground. Which accent marks tilted which way, which words were masculine or feminine, why using “some” rather than “the” before a noun mattered – all the littlest mysteries of mastering the language became verbal sticky notes tacked up all over the lesson.
Her kitchen-table style wove teen banter and veteran observations into the mix, liberally sprinkled with the knowledge of 37 years of leading classrooms of adolescents.
“I don’t know if in high school I wanted to be a teacher, but man, I have never looked back,” Sessa said.