An elementary school teacher who used a talking hand puppet to keep his students captivated during distance learning was named the 2021 Santa Cruz County Teacher of the Year.

Mark Dittmar, an art teacher at Mountain View Elementary School in Rio Rico, was awarded the distinction during a ceremony on July 30 at the Tubac Golf Resort.

Dittmar has been a teacher at the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District for more than 22 years. In addition to his county-wide award, he was also recently announced as the 2020-2021 District Teacher of the Year at SCVUSD’s annual Welcome Back Celebration.  

Every year, SCVUSD said, it sends award nomination forms to families and staff. Last March, it received close to 200 nominations for staff, administrators and teachers, several of which were for Dittmar. 

“Mark is someone who everyone can learn from,” read a nomination submitted by fellow teacher Josie Tanori, who praised Dittmar for “his dedication and ability to create fun and interesting teaching methods for students during distance learning.”

When schools transitioned to virtual learning last year due to COVID-19, the district said, Dittmar sought out an assistant art teacher to help capture students’ attention during online lessons. Secondary the Monkey, a talking hand puppet, filled the position.

“I began using the monkey as an occasional teaching aide years ago, but it wasn’t until the pandemic and remote learning that the need to keep students engaged became vital. That’s when Secondary’s comic voice and personality developed,” Dittmar said. “He is a combination of people from my old neighborhood (and a bit of me).”

Secondary’s personality and charm won over parents as well. 

“He incorporated humor and interest into his lessons by using his puppet Secondary as a very effective teaching tool,” wrote Mountain View parent Haydee Montemayor, who submitted a nomination. “Mr. Dittmar does not only know how to teach art, but he knows how to teach art to kids. And knowing how to encourage creativity, wonder and talent in kids through art is not as easy as one might think.”

Montemayor also submitted a nomination on behalf of her son Angelo, who wrote: 

“I chose Mr. D to be Teacher of the Year because he is creative. He taught me how to draw, showed me how to do ‘what its,’ taught me about artistic people, and showed me how to shade and shadow. The best thing he taught me is how to shade and shadow because that’s how I learned how to make pictures come to life,” Angelo wrote. “I also chose him because I miss him. I hope he’s my art teacher again.”

Dittmar was one of 20 teachers from schools around Santa Cruz County who were honored at the annual Teacher of the Year ceremony sponsored by the Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Office. He’ll now represent Santa Cruz County at the Arizona Rural School Teacher of the Year competition, to be held on Friday, Aug. 13.

(News release submitted by Shannon Enciso of SCVUSD.)

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