Dublin High School teacher Ramany Kaplan said when she was selected as an Alameda County Teacher of the Year, she thought about her parents and what they went through coming to the U.S. seeking refuge from Cambodia in the 1980s.
"I pictured them in my mind and then I thought about all the sacrifices that they've made and the ways in which they have encouraged us and supported all of my siblings and I to go to school, to go to college, to be happy," she said. "So, I dedicated that award to them."
Kaplan, an English teacher and Freshman Mentor Program advisor at Dublin High, was one of two countywide winners announced at the 33rd annual Alameda County Office of Education Teacher of the Year Awards Ceremony on Oct. 6.
More than 300 people attended the event, which honored 18 teachers who were district-level winners representing the more than 11,000 educators across Alameda County, according to a news release from the county Office of Education.
The other winner of this year's county award was Christy Taylor, a kindergarten teacher at Cabrillo Elementary School in Fremont. Kaplan and Taylor now advance to the statewide Teacher of the Year competition.
"The Teacher of the Year Awards Ceremony is always one of my favorite nights of the year," said L.K. Monroe, Alameda County's outgoing superintendent of schools. "I truly enjoy being able to recognize our teachers who have been through so much and continue to persevere amidst ever-evolving challenges."
Chip Dehnert, public information and community relations officer for the Dublin Unified School District, said that leadership teams at different schools choose a nominee for Teacher of the Year. A district team then reviews the representatives from each school and picks one person for the county program.
"Every child deserves a great teacher in every classroom. Ramany exemplifies that sentiment. Her dedication to our students and their success is why our staff selected her as the DUSD Teacher of the Year," DUSD Superintendent Chris Funk said.
Kaplan told the Weekly that she was actually caught off guard when they called her name as the second county winner. She said that she was so invested in Taylor's speech that when she heard her name, all she could do was cry.
"I was so wrapped up in what she was saying ... that when my name was called, I kind of froze," she said. "And then as I was walking to the stage, the only thing I could think about was, 'Oh, I wish my mom and dad were here.'"
Kaplan, originally born in San Jose, said that when her parents moved to the U.S. with her older brothers, they really had to start from scratch.
"They survived off the charity of local churches and their sponsors," she said. "There weren't that many opportunities for them."
She said that didn't stop her parents from instilling into her and her siblings the belief that education was the pathway to success and happiness and they even taught her the importance of giving back to the community.
"When we were younger, they didn't have a lot of money, but they did always fundraise to send money back to Cambodia and to help build the schools in their local village to fundraise to send school supplies," Kaplan said. "My first trip out there, it was to hand out school supplies and equipment and plant trees."
Growing up, she said she saw the importance of education through her mother's experience of going to an adult school and learning English when all her children were able to go to school and she had more free time during the day.
She said that the goal for her mom was to learn English so that she could help her youngest children with their homework.
"I was just watching her learn a different language and struggling through that, but continuing to persevere," Kaplan said. "I always value that a lot when it comes to education, like you're doing it for yourself because you want to do it."
It was at that same adult school that Kaplan first started as a college aid where she helped people like her mom who didn't speak the language, with community-based English tutoring. She made sure their applications were in order, that they had all of the appropriate materials and sometimes even helped watch their kids or grandkids.
Now as a teacher at Dublin High for six years, she plays a similar supportive role with the school's freshman mentorship program and even works with the English department in providing equitable, inclusive and just opportunities for students to to learn.
She also teaches her "Deconstructing Race" class, which is something that she created for seniors who have the option to choose electives.
The semester-long course focuses on how people perceive the world around them considering their bias and how that plays into their interpretation of the world.
One of the first lessons she teaches in the class is about the concept of critical race theory and looking at that through a lens in education and law.
"We look at what it means to deconstruct social issues, to create a more just and liberated world and how we can use that to really make changes within our environment," Kaplan said.
She said that she has always wanted to make a difference in people's lives and that her mom similarly wanted to see Kaplan do something that not only makes her happy, but also brings change to the world.
"What I want to leave behind is an impact," Kaplan said. "I want to open up ways, or provide my kids agency, to speak up to be their authentic selves. To question what's around them."
She said that she admires her students and that she continues to learn from them every day, which in turn helps her grow even more as a person and as a teacher.
"They continue to inspire me every day and I do what I do because of what I continue to learn from them and my belief in them, because they are the change makers," Kaplan said.
Applications for both Kaplan and Taylor have been submitted to the California Department of Education for consideration as the state's Teachers of the Year.