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Q&A: ICOE’s Top Teacher Marilyn McAlister

Tech Savvy Sunflower Educator Will Vie For One of Five State Teach of the Year Titles.

Sunflower Elementary School sixth-grade teacher Marilyn McAlister, in her home, was selected by the Imperial County Office of Education as its 2021 Teacher of the Year and will represent the county in the state Department of Education’s Teacher of the Year program. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MARILYN MCALISTER

El Centro sixth-grade teacher Marilyn McAlister has been nominated by the Imperial County Office of Education for consideration in the state’s Teacher of the Year program.

An educator for nearly 30 years, McAlister, who teaches at Sunflower Elementary in El Centro, will vie for one of five statewide top teachers selected by the California Department of Education.

Marilyn McAlister shows a poster to her Sunflower Elementary School sixth-grade students during a distance-learning session from her El Centro classroom. On Tuesday, June 29, McAlister was named Imperial County Office of Education’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MARILYN MCALISTER

McAlister has been on the forefront of using technology in the classroom and it was one of the main reasons she was nominated.

“Marilyn is a wonderful person who has worked tirelessly over the years to earn this honor,” stated Dr. Todd Finnell, county superintendent of schools. “She embodies everything we look for in our teachers, and we’re so proud to recognize her as our representative from Imperial County. Her positive spirit, infectious attitude, and love for kids are a model for us all.”

Considered an “influencer” and leader in education, according to ICOE, she was recently recognized as 2021 Teacher of the Year by Imperial Valley CUE and previously by the Association of California School Administrators in 2017.

Raised in Imperial, McAlister studied political science at San Diego State University and later earned a master’s in education at SDSU. McAlister and her husband, Vance, have two children — daughter Hannah is a teacher and son Colin recently graduated from University of California, Irvine.

The Calexico Chronicle/Holtville Tribune asked McAlister to tell us about her career and mission in her own words.

Question: How do you feel about being chosen?

McAlister: I am beyond honored to be chosen to represent Imperial County as their Teacher of the Year nominee! There are so many deserving educators, many of them friends and colleagues. Any one of us would do a phenomenal job representing the county.

Q: How does this designation and honor reinforce what seems to be your compass, or North Star, which is implementing meaningful technology and providing a rigorous and relevant education to students?

McAlister: After many years of digging into technology, this recognition came at the moment we utilized it the most. The pandemic placed technology at the forefront of education. As a Google Certified Educator and Nearpod PioNear, I’ve been able to share my skills not only with students but other educators as well.

In order to meet our student’s educational needs, we have to build relationships and know our students’ passions, strengths, and weaknesses. I’m a teacher that teaches with empathy in mind. During this year, both students and families needed that. By knowing the hardships and situations our families were going through, I was able to differentiate instruction and better meet the needs of my students.

Q: How do you feel you effectively do that, in layman’s terms?

McAlister: I was able to meet my student’s needs by taking a blended approach to education. This means that some lessons are online while others use more traditional modes of instruction, think paper-pencil. Although I love technology, it isn’t always the best tool for the task. I also follow the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. This places students at the center of learning while the educator facilitates learning. Since most of our teaching and learning was virtual this year, we utilized breakout rooms, small group learning cohorts, and open office hours. I’m considering keeping virtual office hours as part of my routine next year. Many times, students need that quick interaction with the teacher to clarify confusions and get them back on track.

Q: I remember you as being an early adopter of Twitter for educators. It seems you have been at the forefront of this for awhile. How has technology in education changed in the recent times and what does it do to reinforce learning for kids?

McAlister: Yes!!! I’m an Edu Twitter fanatic! Much of who I am today is because of Twitter. I’ve developed strong relationships with like-minded educators. We share ideas, push each other to innovate, and celebrate success together. (Give me a follow at @MarilynEdu.) I’m eternally blessed for my Twitter PLN (Professional Learning Network).

Many of the technology companies have really listened to educators over the past couple of years. At first, companies built platforms and left them as-is. Now, user feedback is built into the platforms. Flipgrid, Nearpod, and Google Workplace continually iterate based on feedback and much of this is through their social media channels.

Q: I see the press release references you as an influencer on the national level. What are you doing, over and above the kind of global reach that the web gives a person? Are you cultivating a national audience for reason?

McAlister: Great question! Beyond Twitter and the Imperial Valley, I am connecting with others by attending and providing professional development outside our community. For about five years, I’ve been traveling to nearby communities to speak at various teacher conferences sharing best practices with Google tools, inquiry based learning, and student leadership. These are some of my passions!

I also advocate for the United Nations Global Goals. I have been an ambassador in the education community called The Global Goals Project. I’ve brought the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the El Centro Elementary School District by providing professional development to teachers, my school site, and our Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) students.

My main reason for connecting with others is to make myself a stronger educator by exposure to a broader range of teaching approaches and techniques and be able to share with our community, students, and fellow educators. 

Q: Can you tell me more about the Imperial Valley CUE and your 2021 Teacher of the Year designation from that organization? I’m not familiar with IV CUE.

McAlister: CUE is a national nonprofit educational corporation founded in 1978. The purpose of CUE is to advance technology in education. Our local affiliate, Imperial Valley CUE, actively promotes purposeful technology as well as strong pedagogy. Our president, Norma Gomez, is a forward-thinking leader. After being selected as one of their teachers of the year, they asked me to join their leadership team. I am currently the Director of Social Media and Communications.

Marilyn McAlister is featured on Episode No. 2 of Michael Anthony Garcia’s podcast, “Edu with You.”

I have been active with IVCUE for about seven years. We host several professional development events throughout the year. Along with Jesus Huerta, I host a monthly CoffeeEdu on the first Saturday of the month. Before the pandemic, we met at Starbucks but turned to virtual Zoom meetings this past year. We meet for one hour in a safe and inclusive space where we can talk, collaborate, reflect, and plan next steps as educators.

Q: How does it feel to be the county’s nominee for one of five state top teacher designations? And what would it mean to make that cut?

McAlister: It is very exciting and I am quite honestly in awe that I am now in consideration for the California title of Teacher of the Year. Both of my parents, Bob and Sue Haney, were local educators and administrators. My mom is over the moon proud of me! My father, I know, is looking down joyfully and cheering me on from above.

The Imperial Valley is a unique community that I am proud to be part of. We have dedicated teachers, students, and families. It’s my goal and hope that I can help bring recognition to the Valley as a community that provides a quality, rigorous, and meaningful education to our students. Our educators go above and beyond the call of duty. I have an opportunity to shine a light on what we do and believe. We work diligently because we know that all students can learn and deserve a quality education.

Q: I see that your daughter is a teacher. Is Hannah technology-driven as well? And has mom influenced that? Or is mom learning from her, too? Do you both talk shop, tech-wise?

McAlister: I’m so proud of our daughter, Hannah! She’s just completed her first year teaching math in Apple Valley. We spent HOURS on the phone this year! Questions were flying from both of us. It’s definitely been a two-way street this year. Although I’m the “veteran,” the girl has skills! My husband tells me how much alike we are in our personalities and teaching methods. One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that “they’re always watching.” I’m in awe of our Miss McAlister! Before the pandemic, she would present sessions with me. The participants loved the mother-daughter duo. I can’t wait for more of that! And, yes, she’s VERY tech-savvy!

Hannah McAlister, a first-year match teacher in Apple Valley and daughter of 2021 Imperial County Teacher of the Year Marilyn McAlister, often talks shop with her mother and both are tech savvy educators. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MARILYN MCALISTER

Q: Here the requisite pandemic question: Since you were already a digital adopter before the pandemic hit, was it a fairly easy transition for you and your students to go to a distance learning model? I could see that with you.

McAlister: You are right, one of the benefits to being forward thinking in technology for the past few years is that this was a much easier transition than it would have been otherwise. But it was a very busy time at the end of last year and all through the summer coordinating our technology and new protocols. Those of us who had more background in these tools were able to coach those teachers less familiar with them and work to get everyone up to speed by the start of the new school year. Of course, we still made adjustments on the fly throughout the year, but having that head start definitely helped.

In the end, I am very proud of how the year went, both in my classroom and in our district as a whole. Despite the challenges, learning did happen!

Check out McAlister’s Blog: www.sunsationalsixthgraders.com