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Whether coming back to school or heading home for the day, Michele Frantz, a first-grade teacher at Joe Nightingale Elementary School, makes sure to individually welcome or say goodbye to her 28 students.

She doesn't mind the extra few minutes the beginning and end-of-day handshakes, high fives or hugs adds to her schedule. And neither do her students, who eagerly line up awaiting the daily ritual.

"It's just a way for us to connect or say goodbye," said Frantz, a 24-year veteran of the Orcutt Union School District.

For her, the simple greeting helps build a bond with students — a relationship she said is important for classroom instruction.

When lessons get challenging or difficult, Frantz said she leverages the good relationships — built through handshakes and positive behavioral supports — to motivate or focus them.

Last week, in recognition of her longstanding dedication and commitment to students, Frantz was honored by the Santa Barbara County Education Office, which named her the county's teacher of the year.

"I'm very proud to be able to be an ambassador to education," said Frantz, who looks forward to representing Santa Barbara County's roughly 3,400 public school teachers during the next school year.

"I am very proud of the work teachers do throughout our district and county. It's humbling and a great honor."

"The more I think about it," she continued, "the more I just really am honored to be a voice to the great things that are happening in classrooms all over Santa Barbara County."

Frantz entered the teaching profession 24 years ago as a student teacher with the Lucia Mar Unified School District.

She co-taught a combined kindergarten and first-grade classroom with a permanent teacher before joining Orcutt Union as a kindergarten teacher in 1995.

Apart from the four years she spent helping craft the district's English language development curriculum as a teacher on special assignment, Frantz has been in primary grades — mostly kindergarten — for her entire classroom career.

"I love this age level," she said. "The students are so eager to work hard, learn and try new things."

While school curricula have changed through the adoption of common core state standards, Frantz said the shift has placed a renewed emphasis on growth and collaboration.

"The performance aspect is still there," Frantz said, "but there's so much more to our students than just their tests."

At Joe Nightingale, Frantz encourages her students to attempt challenging lessons despite their difficulty because "their brain is still growing."

And with the help of April Harrison and Megan Stein, the three first-grade teachers work with students of different reading levels through targeted reading support and intervention.

"There is a lot to this job," Frantz said. "It's very demanding and equally rewarding. But, when we do it together, I think that is when we are at our best."

Frantz succeeds Carpinteria High School teacher Mandi de Witte, who will round out her tenure as teacher of the year in July.

She will be recognized later this month at the annual Education Celebration in Buellton.

Reach reporter Mathew Burciaga at 805-739-2205 or mburciaga@leecentralcoastnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @mathewburciaga

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Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.