Santa Ynez High educator TJ Berry to be recognized

Staff Report

Three Distinguished New Educators and three Distinguished Mentors will be honored Nov. 6 at the eighth annual A Salute to Teachers gala at the Music Academy of the West.

Sponsored by the Santa Barbara County Education Office (SBCEO) and in partnership with Cox Communications and other organizations across Santa Barbara County, the event recognizes teaching excellence and features new and mentor teachers who contribute to their students and schools in extraordinary ways.

“A Salute to Teachers honors the invaluable contributions these local educators make in their classrooms and schools every day,” said County Superintendent of Schools Susan Salcido. “New educators bring a tremendous amount of energy and inspiration to our teaching profession; mentor teachers help to share wisdom and provide the support that comes from lived experiences from the field.

“To celebrate these educators through A Salute to Teachers is one way Santa Barbara County can say ‘Thank you for all you do for students, families and our communities.’”

The Distinguished Mentors honorees are:

Lorena Armstrong, Mary Buren Elementary/Guadalupe Union School District
Armstrong’s leadership qualities have made her an outstanding mentor to many teachers at Mary Buren Elementary, where she has taught for seven years. She models lifelong learning and inspires others to do the same, encouraging solution-oriented thinking to solve any teaching challenge.

Armstrong takes the time to get to know her students and transforms her instruction to support their needs. She also connects with their families and creates bridges to support them.

Armstrong’s nominator said, “Regardless of the situation or challenge, she keeps a smile and a sound mind. She listens to the needs of students and provides them support.”

Riccardo Magni, Pioneer Valley High School/Santa Maria Joint Union High School District

Magni serves in numerous roles at Pioneer Valley High School, where he has taught science since the school’s opening 18 years ago. He is also a department chair, coach, mentor and parent.

Others describe him as a dedicated and proud teacher who perseveres through difficult circumstances. He goes the extra mile to support students, whether coaching track or taking students to a science fair competition.

One teacher Magni mentors said of him: “Mr. Magni has always made time for me. Even though he is one of the busiest people I know, he still always has time to answer my questions.”

Magni encourages his teaching candidates by offering suggestions for improvement while honoring each candidate’s unique teaching style. His mentorship supports new educators as they develop into school leaders.

Melissa Woods – Dos Pueblos High School/Santa Barbara Unified School District

Through her 22 years in teaching, Woods has been a positive role model and a source of inspiration for students and colleagues alike. Her passion for science education has been celebrated with awards and recognitions, as well as grants from UCSB.

Woods builds lasting relationships with students and colleagues at Dos Pueblos High School. One of her former students was inspired to pursue a career as a physics teacher and became Woods’ student teacher. She said, “Ms. Woods thinks carefully about her instruction and how to best serve her students, colleagues and community.”

Woods creates a community within the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy and is a source of support and strength for students and colleagues during difficult times. She creates lasting bonds by modeling respect, compassion, and dedication.

The Distinguished New Educators honorees are:

Samantha Ayala – La Honda STEAM Academy/Lompoc Unified School District

New educators bring fresh perspectives and innovative approaches to teaching. Ayala embodies this creativity as a fifth-grade teacher in her third year of teaching.

Ayala’s mentor shared, “When we discuss issues in her class or curriculum, Samantha is eager to try new things and move outside her comfort zone.”

Her mentor also complimented Ayala’s focus on preparing students for the challenges they will face in the next grade level with her focused and rigorous instruction.

Ayala dedicates time to the Student Council, where she helps students from different grade levels develop leadership skills. She also works in the after-school program, developing new ways to deliver instruction to support student growth and achievement.

Above all, she has a persevering attitude, and she focuses on solutions while maintaining an upbeat outlook.

TJ Berry – Santa Ynez Valley Union High School/Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District

Berry demonstrates intention in teaching, building relationships, and continual improvement at Santa Ynez Union High School, where he teaches history. Berry’s thoughtful approach shows just how much he cares about students and learning. He is known for his ability to connect with students, and his warmth helps him build positive relationships across the campus.

Berry’s teaching style develops students’ ownership of learning. His project-based learning activities encourage students to choose multiple modes of accessing the curriculum.

Berry’s mentor said: “A common theme I have witnessed … is the question ‘Why?’ He asks himself this question when making decisions about all things related to students.”

Berry strives to find common ground through dialogue when working through a disciplinary issue, and he always remembers the humanity of each of his students. His devotion to students in and out of the classroom models excellence in the teaching profession.

Christina Peña Eckert – Carpinteria Middle School/Carpinteria Unified School District

“Withitness” is a word used to describe an educator who is intuitive, caring, and responsive to student needs. Peña exemplifies withitness in her classroom and the school community.

Peña’s principal said: “Students feel seen by her, and they trust her to teach them to be effective communicators through her classes.”

She is an active school community member and shares AVID strategies at staff meetings to support teaching and learning. She is always smiling, and her positive attitude is infectious.

She inspires others to consider problem-solving strategies when confronted with challenges. Peña has a bright career ahead and will be a source of motivation and encouragement for years to come.

In addition to the distinguished new teachers and mentors, A Salute to Teachers will also recognize the 2022 Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year Alisyn Blanton, 2021 Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year Frank Koroshec, the 2022 Santa Barbara Bowl Performing Arts Teacher of the Year Josie Coburn, and the 2021 Santa Barbara Bowl Performing Arts Teacher of the Year Elizabeth Caruso.

SBCEO is grateful to partner with Cox Communications, Fielding Graduate University, Montecito Bank & Trust, Noozhawk, Santa Barbara City College Foundation, the Santa Barbara Bowl, and others, who make this event possible.

For more about the awards or the event, visit or contact Steve Keithley, director of teacher programs at 805-964-4710, ext. 5281. For more about the Teacher Induction Program, visit or contact John Merritt, director, Teacher Induction Program at 805-964-4710, ext. 5428.