Kearny Mesa, California - The heart of her teaching philosophy is that every student wants to be successful. And it’s her challenge to find ways to engage and inspire them not to get in their own way, even though they are incarcerated.

Sara Matthews, 36, teaches science as part of the Juvenile Court and Community Schools unit at Juvenile Hall in Kearny Mesa, and was selected as the San Diego County Office of Education District Teacher of the Year. Matthews is one of 43 district teachers of the year in San Diego County that will go on to compete to be one of the five San Diego County Teachers of the Year in October.

But on Friday, May 2, she and the other district teachers of the year will be called down onto the baseball field at the start of the San Diego Padres game as part of a Salute to Teachers. After the game, the Padres Point of View television show will focus on Matthews and will include a testimonial from a former student.

The show airs on Fox Sports San Diego at the following times:  Friday 10:30 p.m. or 30 minutes after the post game show; Saturday 2:30 a.m.; Saturday 3:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.; and Monday  5 p.m.

She is exuberant and passionate about teaching. In her career, she says she often feels inspired and empowered when watching her students succeed.

“My whole goal is to inspire these kids and let them know that they are no different than any other kids and that they can be successful,” said Matthews.

Certainly, she faces challenges as an educator. One is that many of the students are transitory; they may come to class one day, then be called to court or transferred to another facility or released at any time after.  But she said she knows her difficulties pale next to those of her students.  Maybe the biggest obstacle is their mindset. Matthews says her students often come to her believing they cannot succeed due to their circumstances. She thinks they can, and her big challenge is getting them to think the same.  

How does she change those beliefs? Matthews said she strives to “give her students lessons that are engaging and thought-provoking.” She designs lessons that have “entry points” for involvement for students who can range from 12 to 18 years old and who may have significant gaps in their basic education. She shows them respect for their thoughts and ideas and hopes every student feels they have made a contribution to her lesson every day.

“Sara is an outstanding teacher. She goes above and beyond in planning engaging and enriching lessons for her students,” said Melanie Tolan, who also teaches at Sarah Anthony School and was a 2010 California Teacher of the Year. “Sara strives to make her classroom as rigorous as a class at a traditional school and continually challenges her students.”

Matthews has been teaching since 2004, initially as a substitute and then got a contract with the San Diego County Office of Education in 2007. She has worked at the Toussaint Academy San Diego, a school that serves homeless youth, and at the Breaking Cycles/Reflections court-ordered school as part of probation in addition to the Sarah Anthony School at Juvenile Hall.

Matthews said she encourages her students to think outside of her classroom walls and how they can go on to be successful. She tells them being incarcerated doesn’t define them and that they can learn from this experience and it can push them to be more successful.

“So, I really try to focus on making lifelong learners, leaving my class wondering things, wondering about connections in the world,”  Matthews said.

All the students come to her already with life skills they don’t even realize they have such as perseverance, resiliency and grit, and Matthews said she tries to inspire them to find a way to transfer it into the real world.  

 “When the kids leave and say ‘I feel smart,’ or ‘I like school’ or ‘I like this class,’ those are my successes,” she said.