CONCORD -- For the first time in more than two decades, Contra Costa County will name two teachers of the year.

The two teachers will be chosen Thursday from among four finalists who will present speeches during an awards banquet at the Concord Hilton. The finalists are Cindy Egan and Nicholas Zefeldt of the San Ramon Valley district, Carissa Sugden of the Mt. Diablo district and Beth Levine of the West Contra Costa district. Egan teaches biology and Advanced Placement environmental science at San Ramon Valley High in Danville, Zefeldt teaches fifth grade at Live Oak Elementary in San Ramon, Levine teaches fourth and fifth-graders at Montalvin Manor Elementary in San Pablo and Sugden teaches fifth grade at El Monte Elementary in Concord.

"I am really honored to be a finalist and still a bit surprised that I have gotten this far," said Egan in an email. "I have only been a teacher for nine years, and I still feel like I have so much to learn. I love what I teach, and I am very passionate about both the environment and about helping students understand what engineering is all about."

Like Egan, Levine turned to teaching as a second career after first working as an engineer.

"I encourage my students to do their best at all times," said Levine, who teaches 28 students, including 21 English language learners. "I put a priority on cultivating relationships and really getting to know them -- knowing what motivates them and what's interesting to them -- and I work very hard to not give up on them and to encourage them to succeed."

Zefeldt also tries to reach his students by tapping into their interests, such as computers and video games, he said. His students create podcasts and videos that they can share with their families and friends, as well as with the school community.

"The beauty of it is that they get the idea that they're not doing this for their teacher; they're doing this for themselves and the world," he said. "And when they understand that, all of a sudden, they become incredibly motivated to make really wonderful pieces of work."

Sugden says she sometimes feels like a detective as she tries to figure out what will appeal to her 34 students, including about 18 who don't speak English fluently. These students, she said, often need time to think about what she's saying and to translate it into their own language, before they can process the information and respond.

"I believe every child can learn, but it may take children different amounts of time and different amounts of exposure to the material," she said. "It's the job of the teacher to find what helps a child learn."

Winners will be chosen by a panel of a educators, business, and public-sector representatives based on their speech and presentation skills. School district teacher of the year finalists will also be honored.

MORE INFORMATION
Additional details about the Teacher of the Year program, including the names of all 22 Contra Costa County district representatives, is available by calling 925-942-3429 or by visiting www.cocoschools.org. Click "2013-2014 Contra Costa County Teacher of the Year Finalists Named."