“To reach a child’s mind, a teacher must capture their heart.” —Dr. Haim Ginott

“This quote guides my teaching,” explains Isbell Middle School teacher Jan-Erik Sand, recently named Ventura County Teacher of the Year. “Once I have buy-in from students and they know how much I genuinely care, then they are very apt to work tirelessly to achieve our collective goals, and to make me proud,” adds Sand, who makes it a point to convey to each and every student how much they matter.

The 7th and 8th grade math and engineering teacher says his ability to connect with students—a skill he learned from his father, also an award-winning educator—makes him stand out in his field.

“I was so fortunate to grow up in a household where I could observe my father, Dr. Jon D. Sand, serve as an award-winning educator and administrator and truly experience how well he could build rapport with each and every student,” shares Sand, who grew up in the Conejo Valley and attended local schools starting in Kindergarten (Carden Conejo, K-1st; Westlake Hills Elementary, 2nd and 5th; Ascension Lutheran, 3rd and 4th; Aspen Elementary, 6th; Redwood Middle School, 7th and 8th; Thousand Oaks High School, Class of 2002) and through college (California Lutheran University, Undergraduate Class of ’06).

“I recall serving as a cross-age tutor for my 8th grade elective class, which allowed me to assist my dad within his 3rd grade class at Aspen Elementary at the time (in 1997), the year he earned the Amgen Award for Teacher Excellence. “His students would run to his classroom to learn every day. They were just so excited to be there. As a teacher myself now, I try to emulate that type of environment—one that is safe, thrilling and academically rich. The environment that all of our students deserve to learn in,” says Sand, noting his surprise at being selected as Teacher of the Year.

“I think I was probably most surprised because I know how many incredible teachers are deserving of this recognition as well,” Sand says. “Throughout Ventura County there are countless teachers making positive impacts on our children’s lives every day. I am so honored to be recognized as one of those leading individuals.”

Sand says he gravitated toward teaching as a career after serving in Iraq in 2007 as an activated USMC Reservist (and earning two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals) and working in the private sector as a Project Manager and Director of Finance & Forward Planning.

“Despite those successes, however, I continually sought opportunity to serve the community again, and somehow give back,” says Sand. “By 2014, my wife encouraged me to try substitute teaching, and I was ‘hooked’ from Day One.”

Beginning his teaching career in 2014, Sand says he enjoys teaching all subjects, having taught Math, Science, History and Language Arts and holding Clear Credentials in Multiple Subjects, as well as Career Technical Education (CTE) with subject matter designation in Architecture & Engineering, as well as Business & Finance.

“If I had to choose just one subject, it would probably be Engineering,” he says. “It is what I teach full time at this point in my career. And what I enjoy about it most is that it encompasses all subject matters, combining them in thought-provoking ways. Engineering has become the project-based learning environment that has allowed students to be more creative than ever, while working together in collaborative ways that truly prepare them for the real-world and their futures,” says Sand, who finds great joy in watching his students learn.

“I can literally watch their emotions just rise as they become elated with the successes that they achieve in my classroom. It’s an incredible experience to be a part of, and I strive to ensure that each and every student stays positive and encouraged to reach their maximum potentials, even though we will surely face challenges along the way,” he notes, adding, “Those challenges are simply a part of the learning process, and I always share with my students that if they aren’t making mistakes or struggling at times, then they aren’t being challenged enough. Together we can embrace challenge, give our true best efforts and ultimately be proud of the results.”

As a middle school teacher, Sand takes advantage of the opportunity to encourage students to explore their interests and develop long-term goals. Quoting Mark Twain, he often tells students: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

“Since I teach in middle school, fortunately I get one of the first chances to remind students that while school is no doubt difficult at times, more importantly, it is a place of opportunity—the opportunity for kids to explore numerous subject areas and determine their likes and  dislikes, sports, extracurricular activities, as well as career exploration,” says Sand. “So I encourage a student to try and develop a focus in their life, and if they have no idea where to start, then simply get involved with everything that they can within their schools and communities. Eventually they will find something they are passionate about and begin to develop their mid-term and long-term goals, which is a great place to start!”

Sand also encourages teachers who are just starting out in their careers. Quoting insurance industry retired billionaire Art Williams, “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it,” Sand reminds teachers that pushing through difficulties comes with immeasurable rewards.

“This quote really sums up the first few years of teaching,” he notes. “Sometimes there are things that new teachers may be unsure of or worried about, and most importantly, out of their control. There is just so must to learn that it can become hard to absorb that degree of information at a speed with which one only hopes they could. My advice for new teachers is to not lose sight of the ‘big picture.’ Most likely, we all chose the profession for the same reasons—to serve our youth and to improve our communities. This alone is an incredibly commendable decision, and new teachers should feel special in knowing how appreciated their roles truly are. Together we are preparing the leaders of tomorrow. So stay positive, even when the ‘going gets tough,’ and remember to seek joy and support from colleagues, family and friends. Be proud of what makes you the incredible person that you are and allow that uniqueness to shine as you provide the inclusive, caring classrooms and learning environments for all children and young adults.”

Pointing to his own mentors, including his father, former (and first) Westlake High School Principal Curt Luft, and Dale Ackerman, Sand notes that he holds a Master of Education Degree (’16) with Specialization in Best Practices and credits them, as well as those in school and district-level administration with serving “in one way or another as a mentor of mine through leading by example and supporting my innovative approaches to teaching.”

Evolving Education

Classroom innovation and collaboration are hallmarks of Sand’s teaching style, which he believes allows for deeper learning opportunities.

“I see Project-Based Learning (PBL) becoming more and more commonplace in every classroom,” says Sand. “When we present students with real-world scenarios, as opposed to rote memorization, we are asking them to think more deeply and critically. And as a result, the outcomes are much higher.”

Sand says he is excited about the future of education and incorporating new technologies in the curriculum.

“I foresee an evolution to the creation of more concept and real-world opportunities to be provided to our students; where they can showcase their creativity in ways that weren’t possible decades ago, and prior to the current technological age,” says Sand. “For example, being able to produce an articulating prosthetic on the 3D-printers in my classroom this past year not only benefited the immediate student and his family, but it opened up the other students’ eyes in our school to the capabilities that technology can present. That was an incredible experience!” he shares, referring to the creation of a prosthetic hand for a student using a 3D-printer.  

This fall, Sand will continue to offer project-based learning opportunities to students as well as incorporate new material into the curriculum.

“Every year I like to challenge myself with refining lessons and incorporating new technologies with relevant issues and evolving curriculum,” shares Sand. “And while it makes for a lot of very long days that turn into evenings, nights and even weekends, the reward makes all of the effort worthwhile. I am hoping to see students creating new and innovative solutions to tasks/challenges, and this year I also will be spending more time supporting several of our growing after-school clubs (including Girls in Engineering, Competition Robotics and more).”  

And as if that is not sufficiently impressive, Sand also plans to go back to school himself.

“This fall I will begin an Administrative Credential program through the USC School of Education’s School Leadership Academy,” says Sand, noting that applying himself to the 15-month graduate program during evenings and weekends sets an example for his students.

“The students in my classroom get to see me work exhaustingly with them all day, and then regularly attend Professional Development and Graduate classes in the evenings and on weekends,” he says. “I use these experiences as ways to model to my students that if I want something enough and work hard to achieve it, then success can absolutely be earned. I strive to lead by example, including being a lifelong learner.”

Sand’s title as 2019 Ventura County Teacher of the Year qualifies him for consideration as the 2020 California Teacher of the Year. To learn more about the Ventura County Teacher of the Year award, including past recipients, visit VCOE.org/TeacheroftheYear.