Higley High School science teacher Jamie Valderrama's students say she makes each day better and encourages them to learn.
Valderrama, known as Ms. V, is popular for her goofy jokes, fun learning games and knack of applying relevance to class lessons.
Because of her inspiration to her students and the Higley Unified School District, Valderrama was chosen by the Arizona Educational Foundation as one of five Teacher of the Year finalists, known as an "Ambassador for Excellence."
Although she was not named Thursday as the Teacher of the Year, the three tables of Valderrama's students, administrators, co-workers and senior volunteers were still excited that she was chosen as a finalist among the 73 applicants. Valderrama is the only high school teacher among the finalists and is the first from Higley to be chosen as a Teacher of the Year finalist.
Joy Weiss, a first-grade teacher at Balsz Elementary School in Phoenix, was named the 2010 Teacher of the Year.
"She's (Valderrama) the most uplifting and encouraging person," said Katarina Della Cioppa, a Higley High senior who came out to cheer her teacher on Thursday at the luncheon held at Camelback Inn in Paradise Valley. "She loves all of us equally."
Valderrama teaches honors anatomy/physiology and zoology and has also taught biology throughout her seven years at Higley High. She is also the student council adviser.
Joanna Arreguin, the senior class vice president, said Valderrama "makes such an outstanding environment" for all students.
"She's part of our family," said the 17-year-old. "She makes each day better."
Teaching is Valderrama's second career. She previously was a district manager and field trainer for a large retail company before she started substitute teaching in North Carolina and Hawaii. She received her education and biology degrees in North Carolina, and loved student teaching.
Using her management skills and creating a team atmosphere in her classes are easier for her because she can pull from her manager background.
"Here the bottom line is the kids, not the dollar," said Valderrama, 40. "It's a huge difference as far as the emotional payback and for my quality of life."
Her husband, Jorge, is retired from the Army special forces, and the family has done extensive traveling. Jorge is now an ROTC teacher at Grand Canyon University. The couple have two children in the Gilbert Unified School District.
Higley High's administration chose Valderrama in April as the school's Teacher of the Year nominee, as each school was given the task to choose a nominee. Valderrama learned at a district dinner in May that she was chosen as the district's nominee for the award.
After the Arizona Educational Foundation narrowed the list down to 10 teachers, Valderrama interviewed with 12 educational professionals and business executives before she was chosen as a finalist.
"I call myself an integrative teacher," she said. "I teach to the entire student. It's more than just content. It's character development and being the leader."
As one of four Ambassadors for Excellence, Valderrama will serve as a spokesperson for her profession, advocating for excellence in the classroom by making presentations statewide to education, civic, government and professional organizations, according to the foundation.
She will also receive $5,000, a laptop from Intel Corporation, professional speech training, and a scholarship from Argosy University for 50 percent of the cost of tuition toward a master's or doctorate degree in education. Blue Bell also gave Higley High an ice cream party last month in her honor.
Valderrama said it's her goal to encourage and motivate her 200 students to explore math and science careers.
"I want them to have only the good taste of science in their mouth," she said. "Kids are rewarding. They're a lot of fun."