SLO County Teacher of the Year: Beyond the classroom

Cathy Ahearn is being honored for unwavering dedication to her students that extends beyond the classroom and to the hearts of those who know her.

The Laguna Middle School teacher, who has taught for 15 years, is this year’s San Luis Obispo County Teacher of the Year, making her a nominee for the statewide award.

Ahearn is credited with having a teaching methodology centered on empowering and encouraging students to fulfill their potentials.

“I really believe that teaching is an honorable profession,” Ahearn said. “I always say that I really pride myself on being a good role model to students. If you want to make a difference, being a teacher is a great way to do it.”

Ahearn is a San Luis Obispo native who attended Laguna Middle School and graduated from San Luis Obispo High School in 1983.

Her parents, Sandy and Dennis Ahearn, played a role in her interest in education with their involvement during her youth.

Ahearn’s mother was an instructional aide and a secretary at Morro Bay High School and later at the district office in addition to being the room mother for Ahearn and her three siblings. Their father was the PTA president.

“They were always really involved and made education a first priority,” Ahearn said.

But it was during her time at San Diego State University while working at a YMCA summer camp and after-school program that Ahearn knew she was meant to teach.

She attended Cal Poly for a teaching credential and a master’s degree in educational administration, and she has been teaching since — at one point commuting more than 150 miles a day to a small town near King City in Monterey County to be in the classroom.

Ahearn now teaches reading and comprehension classes to students who are learning English as a second language. She also mentors the middle school’s leadership class and helps with the district’s summer school program.

Ahearn has also been Edna 4-H Club’s swine leader for 10 years.

She spent the past week at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles with her 4-H students, doing the showmanship, market and auction events alongside them — something she did in her own youth.

“I think it is fun to teach kids how to take responsibility and work as a team,” Ahearn said. “We really focus on teamwork and helping each other.”

The reward for her work in the classroom, Ahearn said, is the unforgettable memories and accomplishments of her students.

One such moment happened recently. Ahearn, who took over direction of the school talent show because the longtime drama teacher retired, was approached by a special education student who wanted to sing in the show.

Staff members were concerned about her singing in front of the entire student body because she was off-key, and they didn’t want her to be singled out or laughed at.

Ahearn spent her lunch hour working with the student, but she realized there wasn’t enough time.

Instead, she asked her leadership class to be backup singers for the girl so she wouldn’t be alone onstage. The students agreed and practiced with her, and on the day of the talent show, the singing student received some of the loudest cheers from the crowd.

“It touches your heart that these kids made such a big difference,” Ahearn said. “It is the small moments — and hopefully they take that and go on to do great things.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.