Brenda Fishler and Sauwalee Maliwan

A pair of educators at Poly High School in Sun Valley are being lauded by the Los Angeles Unified School District for being among the best at their craft.

Brenda Fishler and Sauwalee Maliwan are among the 22 instructors the district has honored as its Teachers of the Year. Both are also first-time selections.

The honorees include teachers from elementary, middle and high schools, gifted and special-education programs, magnets, and those who work at multiple campuses.

“It’s a big deal to me,” said Fishler, who has been a special education instructor at Poly since 2003. “I’ve been [teaching] for so long and in so many different ways…it’s been a long journey, and I feel like I’ve worn many hats.”

Maliwan — who graduated from Poly High in 1995 and started teaching there in 2006 — is also the Gifted and Talented Education coordinator. She, too, considers her selection as being momentous.

“It’s a large pool of teachers within the district, and to not only be nominated but also selected — especially this year — is pretty spectacular,” Maliwan said. “I’ve just been teaching; I didn’t set out for anything like this.”

Poly Principal Elidia Vazquez described both teachers as “amazing” in their ability to reach people. 

“Ms. Maliwan, being an alum, knows exactly the community she is  working with. And if you walk into her classroom you see [how well] she connects with the kids,” Vazquez said. “And with Ms. Fishler, I can tell you that once I was sitting in a professional development meeting with her, and she is talking to our general ed teachers about the perspective of her special ed students. And they were able to see why you do certain things…little tiny changes that you can do in the classroom that can have a big impact.”

The fact that anyone can stand out in what has been the most challenging of years for teachers, students and families is remarkable. A health pandemic in March triggered by the coronavirus forced the closure of LAUSD campuses along with every other public and private educational institution throughout the state. Since then, instruction has been conducted primarily online. 

Even though the LAUSD’s fall semester began a month ago, the earliest anticipated return county health officials would consider for the district’s 600,000-plus students to return to campus classrooms is November.

As a special education instructor, Fishler, for one, frets over the continued inability of having in-person contact with her students. Even though she says she feels there are enough supportive programs from the district —“there are a lot of resources out there and it can get a little overwhelming sometimes” —  there is no one-size-fits-all approach for students who may be challenged physically, mentally or emotionally — or all of the above.

“There’s been a lot of technology to learn, and that’s been the first hurdle,” Fishler said. “And for us, we have been able to connect with each kid. I have to [be able to] look in their eyes and sense what they’re thinking because a lot of my kids are non-verbal. It has to be hands-on, it has to be ‘actual.’

“I have to present information, look at them and determine if they’re understanding or not understanding — and what’s another way I can show the same thing in a different way. I have 17 kids in some of my classes; that’s a big group, and to try and individualize is a lot…but the most important thing is having the kids feel comfortable and feeling connected with me.”

For Maliwan, who is trying to provide lab work for students alongside other class requirements, trying to teach remotely has its challenges.

“When this first happened in the spring, we were shocked and trying to survive. But now that fall has rolled around…I think some of the challenges are similar to Ms. Fishler’s,” she said.

“There is a lot of tech out there…But my teaching evolves on a daily basis. The curriculum is still there. The logistics of how to present it and teach it, and create the student buy-in, is just different than how it would be in the traditional classroom and being able to see if the student got it or has that ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look.” 

Fishler and Maliwan weren’t the only Valley-based instructors honored by the district.

Others receiving recognition include Nicole Bloom, Grant High, math; Lauree Johnson-Pittman of Canoga Park High School, special education; Kate Miller, Walter Reed Middle School, English and history; Alejandro Perez, Granada Hills Elementary for Advanced Studies, fifth grade; and Diane Simons, Academy for Enriched Sciences and Global Awareness Elementary Magnet in Encino, second grade.