Jennifer Ellerman is full of caffeine and can-do, a dedicated teacher who labors over lesson plans and becomes absolutely giddy about new state curriculum standards.
Yet that's only part of the foundation that has made her a successful teacher and led to her being selected as one of two Sacramento County Teachers of the Year. Also honored was Bob Crongeyer, a teacher at Taylor Street School in the Robla School District in North Sacramento.
"She has a way of connecting with a child," said Janelle Mercado, who co-teaches with Ellerman at California Middle School.
Mercado said Ellerman knows how to push students to perform their best. And then there are struggling students with whom Ellerman has shared her own story about overcoming hardships.
"We all go through challenges," said Ellerman, 37, who is in her 14th year of teaching.
Partly due to her father's drug addiction, Ellerman said, her family was homeless for 1 1/2 years while she was in high school in Paradise.
She bounced around to friends' homes and to her uncle's garage, where her parents stayed.
"My teachers continued to push me," Ellerman said. "I could have had teachers who said, 'Oh poor you,' but they pushed me. It was that idea that, no matter what your circumstances, you choose your path. I loved the idea of relaying that message to hundreds of little lives."
And so she got into teaching, as did her two sisters. She also credited her mom, who was a teacher's aide, with inspiring her to enter the profession.
"She was a real teacher in every sense of the word," Ellerman said.
When her mom was dying of cancer 11 years ago, students her mom helped teach created a quilt with thumbprints to represent the imprint she had made on their hearts.
Ellerman told this story during an awards dinner for county Teacher of the Year nominees, before learning she and Crongeyer had won.
Both will be considered for statewide Teacher of the Year, an award that goes to five teachers following a rigorous process that includes classroom observations. Statewide winners will be announced in the fall.
One winner advances to the National Teacher of the Year selection process.
Ellerman said she was touched in April when she learned she had been nominated for Teacher of the Year for the Sacramento City Unified School District.
Elizabeth Vigil, principal at California Middle School, said Ellerman deserves the honor.
"I rarely see people who genuinely have a belief that every student can learn," Vigil said. "She makes sure students give their best and she doesn't accept less than that. She gets to know the kids very well. Students confide in her. I know she sounds too good to be true. We are very fortunate to have her."
Ellerman said she feels especially drawn to teaching middle school grades, despite acknowledging that as a child, she "hated middle school."
Sacramento City Unified students returned to school Tuesday.
California Middle School students were greeted by a large blue banner in the school's main corridor recognizing Ellerman as county Teacher of the Year.
"What's great about teaching seventh grade is they come in so nervous and excited about middle school and we get to set the tone for what their middle school experience will be like," said Ellerman, who is teaching language arts to seventh-graders and one period to gifted eighth-graders.
"The comments I was hearing at the end of the day, they all say, 'It's a lot less scary than we thought it would be.' "