CONCORD -- The winners of Contra Costa County's annual Teacher of the Year award competition have something unusual in common: They both worked in the same field, civil engineering, before entering the classroom.

Cindy Egan, 56, has taught biology and environmental science at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville for eight years. Fellow winner Beth Levine, 52, teaches third- through fifth-graders at Montalvin Manor Elementary School in San Pablo.

The two were honored Thursday evening, along with 20 other Teachers of the Year chosen by their districts, at the annual awards celebration coordinated by the county Office of Education.

Egan and Levine will be Contra Costa's nominees for state Teacher of the Year.

Contra Costa has participated in the Teacher of the Year program since 1973, and this is the first time since 1987 that two county Teachers of the Year were chosen, according to county Superintendent of Schools Joseph Ovick, who served as master of ceremonies for the awards dinner.

Although the two winners have similar educational backgrounds, the schools where they teach are quite different.

Egan, a Danville resident, worked for a geotechnical engineering firm in Oakland, where she specialized in designing foundations and other components of high-rise buildings.

She said she entered teaching somewhat by chance after deciding to take a year off from her job.

"I decided to leave the firm and then got bored," Egan said. "I want over to the high school to volunteer for tutoring, and walked out with a job."

Egan said her classroom experience has contradicted some of the ideas she had about young people before she became a teacher.

"I was negative about students, thinking that they weren't respectful, but they have defied my preconceived notions," she said. "My students work hard and go beyond what is required in volunteering."

Caitlin Hernandez, a former student, said Egan is "environmentally conscious and an engaging lecturer with a sense of humor."

"She asked us to come up with three personal, nonacademic goals for the school year, and she remembered which ones they were," Hernandez said. "Test scores aren't the only thing that matters."

Egan is the parent of four daughters, all of whom were in at least one of her classes.

Levine was working for the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, regulating landfills and sewage-treatment plants, when she volunteered to help out with a teaching project on the environment at Richmond High School.

She said that experience piqued her interest in teaching.

She worked at Verde Elementary in Richmond for six years before joining Montalvin Manor, where she is in her ninth year.

Levin said 21 out of her 28 students this year are English Language learners.

She said she tries to engage parents in their children's education and led families on weekend field trips last year to Muir Beach in Marin County and the Oakland Museum.

"Teaching makes me creative and challenges me, and the challenge is immense," Levine said. "It enlivens me to do a better job meeting the needs of my students."

"She (helped arrange for me) to spend a whole week at summer camp at Point Reyes," said Noemi Chavez, a sixth-grader at Montalvin Manor. "She means a lot to me, and I'll never forget her."

Nicholas Zefeldt of Live Oak Elementary in San Ramon and Carissa Sugden of El Monte Elementary in Concord were the other finalists for county Teacher of the Year.