High school teachershonored for their inspiration

Historian Henry Adams once said: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

As a token of gratitude for the happiness that Sonoma Valley brought to her, philanthropist Helen Ann Buckley established a foundation to honor local high school teachers, and last week, three Sonoma Valley High School teachers were awarded the foundation’s 2014 Inspirational Teacher Award and each received $5,000.

This year’s recipients were Pedro Merino and Tammy Rivara from Sonoma Valley High School, and Walt Williams from Creekside High School. Nominations were solicited from students, parents, teachers and the community. 

According to Declan Cuniff and the foundation board, teachers selected by the foundation for the award inspire their students on many levels: “They show extraordinary effort to motivate and inspire students; they provoke independent and original thought; they advise students with personal attention and care; they instill in students a love of learning; they understand the needs of students; they encourage student talents and foster self-esteem; and they understand that the vocation of teaching is a basic foundation necessary for the health and vibrancy of society.

Rivara has helped launch three key initiatives at the high school: the school’s Link Crew leadership program, the addition of AP Statistics, and the national AVID program that prepares unrepresented students for college. Currently, she teaches three math classes and she oversees programming for the English-language-learning students at the school.

Rivara is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where she majored in physics. She earned her teaching credential at Dominican University. During her almost 20 years in Sonoma, she has taught math and the leadership and AVID electives. She only left SVHS briefly, to take a year off to study abroad to learn Spanish.

“I sincerely care about the education and well-being of my students and I hope that I can inspire them to love learning, have faith in themselves and work on achieving their dreams,” said Rivara. “The fact that this award originated from a nomination tells me that I have succeeded for at least one person, which means the world to me.”

Junior Liv Yazzolino said that Rivara “goes above and beyond for the her students. Not only is she great at explaining challenging material, but she really cares. She comes in early and stay late to help because she really wants everyone to do well.”

 Rivara is known for treating her students with respect. “I try to have positive, unique relationships with all of my students and I try to get to know them, both mathematically and personally. I put my all into my teaching and hope that my time and energy has a positive effect on my students.”

Merino has taught Spanish at the high school for more than 20 years and has coached the successful boys varsity soccer team since 1992.

His three daughters all graduated from Sonoma High. His own background as a star student-athlete is inspiring to his students as he was a four-year starter for Cal’s soccer team and was named All-Pacific First Team and All-American Honorable Mention.

Junior Edwin Reyes plays soccer for Merino and was in his AP Spanish class, “He is very passionate about making sure each student or player is respectful and can set a great example for the rest to see. He has definitely had an impact on the way I compose myself. He is full of wisdom and I feel fortunate to have been exposed to his kindness, advice, support, and teachings.”

Like Rivera, Merino is a graduate of UC Berkeley (with a degree in Spanish, Hispanic literature and linguistics). He received his teaching credential from the University of San Francisco and did graduate work at Oregon University, Universidad Autonoma in Mexico and Universidad de Salamanca in Spain.

Merino said, “To receive this award is an honor and a humbling experience. My success is my love for teaching, to instill in them the love of learning, respect, and teaching our young adults to become contributing members of society and their community, after all, they are our future and the future of this country.”

Williams has taught at Creekside High School for the past 15 years. Creekside is an alternative high school option for Sonoma teens, housed on the SVHS campus, but with its own classrooms and faculty.

Williams is known by his students for his maverick personality and unconventional teaching methods, but also his passion for the job.

He graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1987 and today teaches across several subjects including math, biology, art and social responsibility. He also frequently writes for the local newspaper about his life and honest insights as a teacher.

Creekside principal Sydney Smith said, “Students respond to Walt’s sense of humor, his love for teaching and learning and his unique way of guiding them to make good choices. He actively listens and offers constructive, non-judgmental, non-confrontational advice to his students in all areas of their lives; and he inspires them to find own path, whatever that may be.”

Williams said, “The best thing about the award is the response from people when I tell them that I don’t deserve it. I have had more genuine complimentary comments about my connection to students in the last twenty four hours than in the last 15 years.”

This is the second year of the award program. Last year’s Inspirational Teacher recipients at Sonoma Valley High were Andy Gibson, Alison Manchester and Dean Knight. Nominations for the 2015 awards will be accepted through October 2015. (

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