Bruton High Educator’s Focus on Literacy Leads to YCSD Teacher of the Year Honor

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Tori Otstot was selected as the York County School Division's teacher of the year. (Courtesy YCSD)
Tori Otstot was selected as the York County School Division’s teacher of the year. (Courtesy YCSD)

Bruton High School teacher Tori Otstot did not know the school organized an assembly just for her.

Otstot, who has taught at the school for four years, thought she was attending a staff meeting with Principal Alexis Swanson. On her way to the meeting, she heard a band playing and knew something else had been planned.

Still, she did not think the school had assembled to honor her. Instead, she thought the assembly would be for all her colleagues as a part of Teacher Appreciation Week.

When she saw Superintendent Victor Shandor walk into the room, she figured out what was really going on.

Otstot, who teaches ninth and 11th-grade English at Bruton, was announced as the York County School Division’s teacher of the year for 2014-2015 during the ceremony.

She knew she was a finalist for the division-wide honor, as she has already earned the distinctions of Bruton’s teacher of the year and the YCSD high school teacher of the year.

The teacher of the year honor is the culmination of a career for which Otstot always knew she was destined.

“I’ve wanted to be a teacher my whole life, for as long as I can remember,” she said. “I played ‘school’ as a little girl, and I loved to read. I couldn’t wait to be a reader.”

Those schools games growing up in Cheboygan, Mich., turned into a college career path for Otstot.

“It just made it a no-brainer,” she said.

As a student at Saginaw Valley State University, Otstot majored in secondary education and English, gaining the expertise to fulfill her lifelong dream of teaching.

After graduating, Otstot discovered she would not be able to achieve that dream in the state where she grew up and went to school.

“There weren’t many teaching jobs in Michigan,” she said.

Otstot looked to a friend who was working in York County schools for advice. After several conversations, Otstot applied to work in the school division and was hired.

She began working at York River Academy in 2008 and taught there for two years. In 2010, she moved to Bruton to teach ninth grade advanced English and on-level 11th grade English.

Otstot’s two classes mostly cover different material. Her 11th-grade students study American literature, while her ninth-grade students follow a “genre study,” reading and analyzing works in different literary forms, like novels, plays and poetry.

The common theme in both classes is reading, and Otstot emphasizes the importance of literacy – both inside the classroom and beyond.

To help develop her students’ literacy skills, Otstot began a new exercise with her students this year. Both classes begin their sessions with 15 minutes of independent reading. Eleventh-grade students chose their reading material, while ninth-grade students followed a theme.

At first, the going was tough.

“Kids, especially the older ones, don’t always want to pick up a book and read,” Otstot said.

As the year progressed, that small bit of independent reading started to have a big effect on her students.

“The classes are asking for more independent time to read,” Otstot said.

Her lessons on literacy also carried over to her teacher of the year honor. Otstot was nominated by her fellow Bruton teachers for the building’s teacher of the year, but the level-wide honor required a biographical essay and an essay on her teaching philosophy.

As the YCSD teacher of the year, Otstot is automatically entered in the Virginia statewide teacher of the year competition.

That competition requires an additional four essays, due next week. One of the essays must be on an issue facing education. Her choice was obvious – literacy.

Through it all, Otstot remains grateful to her colleagues who nominated her for the honor, and who helped mold her as an educator.

“I work with a tremendous staff,” Otstot said. “Just about anyone could have been selected, especially in English. They made it possible. It’s really an honor.”