Retiring Solana Santa Fe ‘Teacher of the Year’ believes in the importance of learning ‘life skills’


By Stacey Phillips

Third grade teacher Suzie Shea was named this year’s Teacher of the Year at Solana Santa Fe Elementary School in Rancho Santa Fe. After 30 years of teaching children, she retired at the end of this school year from the profession that she has always loved.

Born and raised in Oakland, Calif., Shea always wanted to be a teacher. Her mother was in charge of the gifted child program in Oakland; meanwhile, Shea said she always wanted to help the students who needed a little extra.

Shea was a nun for 11 years at the Holy Name Sister in California, where she taught children. She also worked at other California schools, including two different boarding schools. She took a break from teaching and had three children of her own, two daughters and a son. Eventually, she decided to go back to the classroom and came to Solana Santa Fe in 1997.

Connecting with her students has always been an important goal for Shea. “I’ve lived many years so I’m able to show them pieces of my life that are so important, values that aren’t always taught in the home, values of honesty and helping one another,” she said. “It takes a village to get us all educated.”

Shea said it’s one thing to teach children academics, but life skills are just as important. “You can be the smartest child in the world, but if you can’t relate to other people and compromise and work together, then your brilliance goes for naught.”

Over the years Shea has taught a range of grades from third to eighth; the fifth grade curriculum was one she has always enjoyed. One of her favorite memories was taking the fifth grade students to Washington D.C. every year with the other teachers at Solana Santa Fe.

“What I learned from her as a mentor is to know kids as people; she instilled that in me,” said fifth grade teacher Becky Gauthier, who used to travel to Washington D.C. with Shea. “She is incredibly creative and can dream anything up and make it happen. She knows the kids so well and instills a love of reading in every child.”

Shea has seen many changes throughout her career, especially the increase of technology in the classroom. She cautions students to be aware how much time they are spending using technology so they don’t miss out on interaction with other people. “It’s just learning the balance in life, the balance of using these things as tools.”

She has also noticed the maturity of the children has been raised. “I think children grow up faster today than they did years ago. You have to meet those moments with children to keep them interested in school because the outside world is so interesting,” she said.

After retiring, Shea plans to spend time gardening, visiting her seven grandchildren, and learning Spanish fluently. Another one of her goals is to volunteer at San Diego’s Monarch School for homeless children. She has been involved with the school in the past, encouraging Solana Santa Fe students to donate shoes to the organization.

She is also considering writing a book about her life story, which she said has been interesting and often entertains teachers with her stories.

Over the years, Shea said she has learned the importance of listening. She encourages teachers to listen to their students and not to impose ideas on them but instead to encourage them to think for themselves.

Her advice to students is to “Discover yourself, who you are and what kind of person you want to be. I always tell the kids, ‘You have two ears and one month, what does that tell you? You should be listening!’”