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The Student News Site of Sunny Hills High School

The Accolade

The Student News Site of Sunny Hills High School

The Accolade

Veteran world language teacher earns national recognition with a different type of Nobel prize

Sue Kang
Junior Ethan Tam (left) and world language Chinese teacher Soon-Ya Gordon hold Gordon’s national Educator of Distinction award on Tuesday, Feb. 20, during lunch in her classroom, Room 36. The award is named after Claes Nobel, a grand nephew of Alfred Bernard Nobel — founder of the Nobel Peace Prize — and co-founder of the National Society of High School Scholars.

Two decades.

That’s four U.S. presidents in that time frame.

Ten Winter and Summer Olympics have been held in such countries as Japan, China, Italy and Greece.

And 15 total solar eclipses have occurred in two decades. 

Once the 2023-2024 school year ends, that’ll also be how many years that Soon-Ya Gordon has been teaching the world language elective, Chinese, at Sunny Hills.

“I believe students can learn as much as they want to, and I want to be here to help them do that,” said Gordon, reflecting on the nearly 20 years teaching here. “But more importantly, I want to be here for those students who need someone to speak with, to talk to.

“I had some good teachers when I was in high school, but it was those that made me feel comfortable speaking to those that would take the time to listen, that made an impact in my life.”

In the 2004-2005 school year, Gordon – known then by her maiden name, Chang, before she got married nearly 16 years ago to SH social science teacher Jeff Gordon – taught one period of Chinese 1. Now, she teaches four levels of the world language: a combined Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate [IB] Standard Level [SL] class first period; Chinese 2 second period; Chinese 3 third period; Chinese 1 fourth period. 

To learn more about Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, students in Soon-Ya Gordon’s Chinese 3 class work in January of 2022 on a paper craft of the Chinese character for that season. (Image used with permission from Soon-Ya Gordon.)

For period six, she leaves campus and travels to Troy High School, where she teaches Chinese IB SL this school year and has taught Chinese 1 there in the past.

“Google and AI and all sorts of apps have changed language learning so much,” Soon-Ya Gordon said. “So many students rely on those to help instead of doing the actual leg work.  I hope the students do know that there’s no shortcut to learning a language.”

Last semester, for the first time as an educator, Soon-Ya Gordon was recognized for making an impact in her students’ academic and life endeavors.

The world language instructor who graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Chinese said she received an 8:23 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2, email from the National Society of High School Scholars [NSHSS], informing her of being named a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction.

“Ethan Tam, a member of the National Society of High School Scholars, has nominated you as a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction in recognition of your impact as an educator, leader and role model. … We are proud to recognize your dedication to your students and your profession,” according to the email written by James W. Lewis, NSHSS president and co-founder. 

The written correspondence also included what Tam – a junior in Soon-Ya Gordon’s first period Chinese class – wrote as part of the award nomination process:

“Mrs. Gordon has not only made learning a new language interesting and informational through her insightful and engaging form of teaching, but she has also taught me important life lessons and given me valuable advice regarding high school and college,” the IB SL Chinese student wrote. “In order to prepare and showcase Chinese culture, she goes above and beyond by not only educating us on various customs but also bringing crafts and food for us to enjoy. 

World language teacher Soon-Ya Gordon shows on Wednesday, April 17, the paper dragon crafts that she taught all of her students to make in February as part of Chinese New Year’s celebration for the Year of the Dragon. Many of those are displayed in front of her classroom above the white board in Room 36. (Photo taken by Asaph Li.)

“Having had Mrs. Gordon as a teacher for three years, she has become a teacher at school whom I feel comfortable confiding in. She has always been willing to listen and give guidance in the areas that I needed help in which has set her apart from other teachers that I have had.”

Tam’s concluding statements summarize the overall impact his teacher has had on him: “Through her Chinese classes, I have not only improved my Chinese, but also taken away the ideas and principles Mrs. Gordon has taught me and applied them to my other classes and extracurriculars.”

Soon-Ya Gordon said her student had not informed her ahead of time that she would be receiving such an email notification about this award.

“I was really pleasantly surprised because we know how busy kids are. … All these good things he wrote about me [in the email], I did not realize I had that level of impact on students,” she said.


According to the Georgia-based organization’s website, the NSHSS was first formed two years before Gordon’s first year at Sunny Hills and since 2007 has been honoring educators with the award named after its co-founder, Swedish-born Claes Nobel – a grand nephew of Alfred Bernhard Nobel, who bequeathed his fortune to establish the Nobel Peace Prize. Of the more than 50,000 educators who have been recognized worldwide, NSHSS did not respond to a Thursday, April 18, email request confirming whether Gordon is the first from Sunny Hills.

“Educators of Distinction are outstanding role models and exemplary practitioners who have made a lasting difference in a student’s life by encouraging them to strive for excellence, not just in their academic pursuits, but in all their endeavors,” according to the NSHSS website’s description of the award.

Although Soon-Ya Gordon said former IB coordinator Brian Wall had informed her in 2017 about the grants that NSHSS offers instructors to apply for, she was unaware of this organization’s connection to the Nobel name and that students can nominate teachers to receive a certificate.

“It’s quite an honor,” she said. “It’s such a prestigious name.”

Two months after that email, Soon-Ya Gordon said she received in the mail a black, 12-inch-by-9-inch envelope containing five items: a bumper sticker that reads, “Educator of Distinction,” in bronze letters with the NSHSS acronym and full name underneath; an 8.5-inch-by-11-inch certificate, a congratulatory letter, a news release about her award and a four-page information sheet about Claes Nobel.

The certificate contains the following commendation: “This certifies that Soon-Ya Gordon has been selected as a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction for excellence in teaching and for the encouragement of, and dedication to, the academic success of students at Sunny Hills High School.”

The certificate (center) is among the five items that Chinese teacher Soon-Ya Gordon received in the mail last December from the National Society of High School Scholars. (Photo taken by Asaph Li)

According to the NSHSS award guidelines, only a student who’s been accepted into this organization can submit a nomination.

“I chose Mrs. Gordon because she helped me learn a second language to an advanced level that I would have never thought to achieve and taught us about Chinese culture as well,” Tam said. “She inspired me by her passion for teaching her students and helping me whenever I needed it. … Her dedication for teaching not only me, but her other students is honestly what inspired me to strive for excellence in and out of school.”


Tam, whose ethnic heritage is Chinese and took the third level world language class as a freshman and AP Chinese as a sophomore, said he received an invitation from NSHSS in July through email and later received in the mail a formal letter that recognized Tam’s academic excellence.

To become a member, the junior said he needed to pay a $90 fee; no essay or application was required.

Within the three months of receiving confirmation of his acceptance into NSHSS, the junior said he aimed to engage more with the organization.

The Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction certificate that world language teacher Soon-Ya Gordon received in the mail last December. (Source: Soon-Ya Gordon)

“I scrolled through their website and went through the different pages and sections and [the ambassador position] was one of the things that was upcoming, so I just decided to apply on a whim,” Tam said.

On Monday, Sept. 11, he said he applied for the NSHSS ambassador position, which required an essay explaining his qualifications. A week later, Tam’s position was confirmed, and the junior said he was able to nominate a teacher of his choice for the Educator Distinction award. 

“When I first applied to be an ambassador, I did not know that I could nominate a teacher,” he said. “I don’t remember when I figured it out, but I remember that nominations were one of the things that was not really an obligation, but something that you should do as an ambassador.”

After Tam finalized his nomination application and submitted it, Gordon received the news two weeks later in October.

“Knowing that it was one of my students who took the time to nominate me made me super pleased,” she said. “Not all students will take the time to do something nice for their teachers.”


After getting the certificate in the mail in December, Soon-Ya Gordon said she told her world language colleague, Esther Lee, about it and showed her the certificate. Lee, who teaches Korean 1 and 2, then informed principal Craig Weinreich, who then included it in one of his digital end-of-the-week newsletters.

Mrs. Gordon is an outstanding Chinese language teacher,” said Weinreich, who doesn’t recall any other previous Sunny Hills instructor getting this award. “She is a worthy recipient of this honor for her continual dedication to maintaining and growing our Chinese program at Sunny Hills.”

Despite the news being spread through the principal’s digital newsletter, Gordon said she never mentioned it to any of Tam’s peers in that first period class.

“Although I do not know him personally, I do know that [Tam] is a hard worker, so I could see the fact that he would nominate Mrs. Gordon,” said junior Alexander Chiao, who is in his third year of the Chinese language program.

Others in the Chinese class agree that Gordon is deserving of the honor.

“I think nominating her was a really good choice because she cares a lot about her students both inside and outside of the classroom,” said senior Karen Huang, who has been in the Chinese language program since her freshman year. “The end of the year is coming up, so I plan on giving her a small gift or if the opportunity presents itself a nomination for some award as well.”


More than two weeks after learning of her Educator of Distinction award, the Gordons and their two children attended Jeff Gordon’s CIF Hall of Fame induction lunch and ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 18, in Long Beach. 

Social science teacher Jeff Gordon and his wife, world language instructor Soon-Ya, hold up the Educator of Distinction certificate that the latter had received in the mail last December. The two were in Korean teacher Esther Lee’s classroom, Room 15, because Soon-Ya Gordon had decided to show the certificate she had just received in the mail to Lee. (Image used with permission from Esther Lee)

Last summer, the family traveled by plane to Nebraska for the ex-girls soccer head coach to receive an award from the National High School Athletic Coaches Association [NHSACA], recognizing him as an inductee of the NHSACA’s Hall of Fame for his work in previous years.

And before that, her oldest child earned a president’s award for his grades during his eighth-grade promotion ceremony in June, Soon-Ya Gordon said.

“It’s a year that we were validated,” she said.

Although she and her family haven’t done anything yet to celebrate her being a recipient of the NSHSS award, Soon-Ya Gordon said she has an idea for where to display her certificate.

I guess I can put it next to Jeff’s two Hall of Fame certificates at home,” she said.

And as for the bumper sticker? As part of her Chinese culture, Soon-Ya Gordon said she plans to remain humble about it.

“I don’t know what I’ll do with the sticker,” she said. “It definitely is not going on my [car] bumper.”

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Kevin Lee
Kevin Lee, Staff Reporter
Sophomore Kevin Lee joined The Accolade after taking the prerequisite class, Journalism 1, as a freshman. Currently, Lee is a staff reporter, but he is aiming to eventually become a news editor. Through working for The Accolade, Lee hopes to improve his writing and social skills, as well as time management and teamwork skills. Some of Lee's hobbies outside of The Accolade are reading books, watching videos and playing video games.  
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