Two College of Education alumnae named top San Diego County teachers

High school teachers Maria Miller and Jennifer Ekstein both earned credentials and master’s degrees from SDSU’s School of Teacher Education.

Friday, June 14, 2024
Two women in portrait photos. The one on the left has curly brunette hair and is wearing a dark aquamarine top with suspenders and lots of flair. On the right, a woman with a light blue bow in her hair and a blue sweater over a white top.
(From left) Jennifer Ekstein and Maria Miller, two of the San Diego County Teachers of the Year for 2024-25.

In what is becoming an annual tradition, two San Diego State University College of Education alumnae have been named San Diego County Teachers of the Year. 

Maria Miller (’11, ’12) and Jennifer Ekstein (’98, ’99, ’03) will be among five educators featured on the “Cox Presents: Salute to Teachers” television special, to be presented in September on the YurView network. Nine SDSU alumni have been honored by the San Diego County Office of Education since 2019. 

While Miller teaches language arts and Ekstein science, the two share a gift for making subject matter connect with students who are often marginalized in education. Here is a closer look at each teacher:

Making lessons land

For Maria Miller, teaching has been an unexpected second act to her career. 

After earning her bachelor’s degree from California State University San Marcos, Miller worked in customer service and training at Pacific Bell while raising a family. But witnessing her children’s challenging experiences in the education system gave her a new professional purpose.

“I wanted to make sure that my son and my daughter had the best education,” Miller recalled. “And I wanted to make sure that other people's children had the best education, too.” 

That meant enrolling at SDSU where she earned a teaching credential in 2011 and then a master’s degree in teaching in 2012. 

“I always praise San Diego State because I think that the instructors were relevant and were all willing to give realistic feedback,” Miller said, who said she was particularly influenced by Professor Emeritus Alberto Ochoa and a course he taught on multilingual learners.

Now at Morse High — a diverse, urban school in San Diego’s Skyline Hills neighborhood — Miller puts those lessons to good use. And she couldn’t be happier with where the journey has taken her.

“I'm tired at the end of each day,” Miller said, “But it's a good kind of tired.”

At Morse, Miller teaches 10th and 11th grade English language arts class. The secret to her success is encouraging active participation — think presentations, not worksheets — and finding lessons that land with her students. A big part of that is finding novels that speak to their cultures and lived experiences. 

“The students have to see themselves,” Miller said. “Whether it's the author, whether it's the characters in the book, right? The story matters.”

On her class reading list is “Patron Saints of Nothing,” a coming-of-age story by Randy Ribay about a Filipino American teenager. Another selection is Adib Khorram’s “Darius the Great is Not Okay,” which tackles issues of teenage mental health and cultural identity. And when her class read the Lorraine Hansberry play “A Raisin in the Sun,” Miller made sure to pair it with a lesson about the history of redlining and other discriminatory housing practices in their own community.

Reflecting on being named Teacher of the Year, Miller also connects the honor back to her students.

“It means a great deal,” she said. “One of the reasons I teach here is because I want to be a role model. I want students to see people that look like them and know that they can do this.”

Seeing students differently

Jennifer Ekstein was fresh off earning her credential from SDSU’s School of Teacher Education in 1999 when she found herself teaching a life sciences course at Bonita Vista High in Chula Vista. At the time, the class was considered “lower-tracked” — referring to the practice of grouping students by achievement.

It was the kind of assignment that many senior teachers steered away from. Ekstein embraced the opportunity. 

“I saw these students differently,” she recalled. “They had an unwavering potential to grow, learn and have success.”

Some 25 years later, Ekstein is still making a difference for students at Bonita Vista — and doing so with flair. As a teacher of biology, environmental science and environmental systems and societies, she makes lessons engaging through song, dance and even costumes. 

She is also a champion of her students’ well-being through social and emotional learning activities and by founding the school’s Culture and Climate Committee, which encourages inclusion and kindness.

Ekstein is a triple alumna for SDSU, earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and biology, a teaching credential and a master’s in secondary education with an emphasis in science for curriculum and instruction. She thrived under the tutelage of Donna Ross, associate professor of science education, as well as Randy Yerrick, a former SDSU professor who is now dean of the Kremen School for Education and Human Development at Fresno State.

“My masters program helped me develop the skills and tools I needed to be a champion and advocate for these students especially in the area of scientific talk,” said Ekstein, who co-authored a journal article with Yerrick on teaching lower track science students. 

“I learned that this equitable approach allowed my students to make sense of scientific phenomena and engage more successfully in science and engineering practices.”

Categorized As