Every weekday morning, Joaquin Miller Elementary School teacher Ericca Dent greets her 2nd-graders by name and checks in on their emotional state by asking them to use their thumbs to express how they are feeling.
“Most students are thumbs up, but there are times it’s sideways or thumbs down,” she said.
Dent does the same to let the students know how she’s feeling and certainly had her thumb up on Friday, Oct. 2, after being congratulated by her class for being one of 10 educators named 2020-21 Teacher of the Year by Los Angeles County.
“A number of them congratulated me, and that was really sweet,” Dent said. “It definitely is an amazing feeling. Looking back at so much of the hard work I’ve done and the work with my students and being recognized, I’m honored and humbled for sure. It’s a great feeling.”
The L.A. County Office of Education held a virtual ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 1, to honor the winners. Dent will receive a $1,000 cash gift from the California Credit Union and a $350 gift certificate for school supplies.
“Ms. Dent has made a positive impact on the students she has worked with,” Burbank Teachers Association President Diana Abasta said during the board of education meeting last week. “She believes in getting to know her students, what their interests are as well as their individual needs. She uses this information to perform engaging and thoughtful lessons that are tailored to each student’s learning and style.”
Engaging with each child individually is what Dent was accustomed to. She aspired to be an educator at a young age after positive experiences with the teachers in her hometown of Chester, Virginia.
“I saw my teachers passing out paper and crayons and I thought this would be fun. This is what I want to do,” Dent said.
As she got older, Dent’s dreams of working in education changed to becoming an astronaut, but her high school experience rekindled a desire to teach.
“I remember my 9th-grade English teacher and also my 10th-grade teacher, just how special they made us feel,” said Dent, whose family moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when she was a teenager. “We were heard and understood. That’s when I knew that dream of being a teacher came up again.”
Since she was typically a good math student, Dent initially majored in that field while attending the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“I began as a math major and by about sophomore year I knew it wasn’t going to work,” Dent said.
The Virginia native opted to major in psychology and realized she wanted to teach younger children. Dent received a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s in elementary education before teaching for three years at a school in Charlottesville.
In 2015, she made the life-altering decision to go west and look for a teaching job in Southern California.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ I saved up for a year and I’m going to get to California somehow,” she said. “I came out here because I always wanted to live in Los Angeles. I came out there before I even had a job and, by the grace of God, I found a job and have been teaching in Burbank since.”
Dent began her stint at Miller as a 3rd-grade teacher but switched the 2nd grade in her second year.
“It’s the perfect grade,” she said. “They’re old enough where they can do a lot of things on their own but they’re young enough where they want to please the teacher. And the hugs; those are fun, too. They’re just so eager to learn and they soak up everything. It’s definitely why I love 2nd grade.”
Taking a page from her peers and mentors, Dent treats the children as her equals and understands that education can only be achieved when students are receptive and willing to learn.
“It’s about constantly focusing on the student,” she said, “and how a teacher can just reach everyone. Sometimes we think of the lower kids. How can I teach struggling readers or those in math but also challenge those students who already got it and may be bored? It’s focusing on them, not just academically but emotionally.”
The 31-year-old teacher has a check-in chart in which she records how a student is feeling on a given day.
“Social emotional needs come first, and then I can work on their academic needs,” she said. “What may work with one class may not work with another. Things are always changing and we have to be willing to change. We have to always keep evolving.”
One of the biggest changes for many educators happened in March when school campuses were shut down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Distance learning was a challenge for Dent, who missed the social interaction with the children.
“One of the challenges with distance learning is just physically not being around the kids,” she said. “It’s so fun for me to greet them in the morning with a high-five and to see them sit on the carpet and interact. I just don’t have that ability to move around and work with the kids. It has been a challenge to teach over the computer.
“On a personal level, [distance learning] showed me how creative I need to be and can be to try to reach them through this platform. It’s definitely humbled me. What more can I possibly do and how much more can I do as an educator? It’s been exciting to see how much more I can step up.”
The past six months have also made Dent question her own curriculum as the Burbank Unified School District strives to be more diverse and inclusive.
“I’ve always been a reflective teacher, and I’m always thinking about how I can improve so I can be better for my students, especially with everything that’s going on in our country and what happened during the summer,” she said. “I’ve been more aware. How can I make sure I reach all of my students when I’m teaching? Does that mean including more voices?”
That openness and willingness to do what is best for her students is what made Dent worthy of receiving one the most prestigious honors for educators. For a second consecutive year, a Burbank Unified School District teacher was recognized by the county, and Dent is now eligible for the California Teachers of the Year award, which is expected to be announced next week.
“We are so proud that Ericca Dent was named one of Los Angeles County Teachers of the Year,” Miller Principal Judy Hession wrote in an email. “Ericca’s positive energy and attitude is inspiring. I appreciate that Ericca takes the time to get to know her students and for building a classroom community that encourages students to work together, be respectful to each other, to care about one another. It is important to Ericca that her students are taught that they can make a positive contribution not only in her classroom but in the school, city, state, country and world.”
Since the ceremony was held virtually, Dent did not have a podium to express her gratitude but wanted to give plenty of kudos to her colleagues at Miller Elementary.
“Everyone has been awesome, specifically my 2nd-grade team,” Dent said. “A shout-out to them because we work so well together and we’re always collaborating.
“There’s no way I can find a place as good as this. I definitely feel blessed I found Burbank because since I’ve been here, I’ve definitely felt supported, not only at my school but in the district as a whole. Our Miller principal is awesome, very helpful and confident in the teachers to do a great job. I never feel her hovering over us. She has faith in us that we’re going to do what we can do to help the kids.”