San Diego County Office of Education's 2015 teacher of the year, Jeffra Becknell, always knew she wanted to fight against social injustice one way or another.
When she was a kid, she was inspired by the book To Kill a Mockingbird and envisioned herself growing up to be a crusading lawyer. Then, after graduating from law school and working at a couple of law firms, she found her true calling: education.
She started 27 years ago, teaching U.S. history and law at Washington Ethical High School (WEHS) in Washington D.C.
"At WEHS, I found what I was meant to do," she said. "The environment was filled with the energy, hope, and struggles of teenagers; people talked about racism, sexism, making the world a better place."
She moved to California in 1996 and started working for Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) the following year.
"It took just one morning in a pregnant minor classroom to convince me that JCCS was the only place I wanted to teach," she said.
She has worked at Monarch School since 2011, teaching social studies and English. There, she is a leader among her peers, encouraging open dialogue and collaboration, said Joe Wiseman, principal at the school.
"Ms. Becknell is the consummate professional who always places the needs of her students first," he said. "She goes above and beyond to engage students in a supportive classroom environment with creative lessons and activities that promote critical thinking."
Monarch School is one of the San Diego County Office of Education's Juvenile Court and Community Schools and serves children in kindergarten through high school who have been affected by homelessness.
Becknell was named JCCS teacher of the year March 16 and San Diego County Office of Education teacher of the year March 23.
She was nominated by her peers and will go on to participate in the San Diego County Teacher of the Year competition in October.
"Teaching is much harder than lawyering, but so much more rewarding," she said. "There is no more hopeful place than a classroom."
Photo: Monarch School students with Becknell (holding flowers), Principal Joe Wiseman (back), and CEO of the Monarch School Project, Erin Spiewak (right).