Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Jessica Villanueva (CA '16)

March 17, 2017

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Jessica Villanueva (CA '16) knows she's succeeding when she sees her students take risks without fear of making mistakes: "That's when I know they feel safe, loved and supported." The second-grade teacher received a 2016-17 California Milken Educator Award on February 3, 2017, at Suisun Elementary School.

Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?

Jessica Villanueva: I knew at a very young age that I wanted to become a teacher. Some of my favorite memories growing up include playing school with my mom. Of course, I was the teacher and she was the student. Growing up I was fortunate enough to have amazing teachers who poured into my life in positive ways. I believe I was called to do the same thing. Every day is an opportunity for me to make a positive impact in the lives of my students and to help them become their "best selves."

MEA: Why elementary school?

Jessica: I wanted to work with students who were just beginning their educational careers. I wanted to instill in them a love for learning and help them to experience success early on in school. My favorite thing about this age group is their enthusiasm for learning. I love seeing their eyes light up when they learn something new or when they have a "light bulb" moment. The most frustrating thing about this age group is their short attention span. This definitely challenges me to come up with new, fun and exciting ways to keep them engaged and attentive.

MEA: What was your first job?

Jessica: Waiting tables at a local restaurant. As a waitress, I learned to multitask and prioritize my workload, all while providing excellent customer service. This is definitely something I've carried with me into the classroom. As a teacher, you are often doing many different things at once. It's important to know which things are most important without forgetting who is most important—your students.

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MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?

Jessica: My sixth-grade teacher, Ann Lammon. She is one of the greatest women I have ever met and is everything you've ever wanted in a teacher. She was warm, loving and treated everyone who crossed her path with kindness and respect. As a teacher, I remember her holding us to high expectations and challenging us. She encouraged problem-solving and critical thinking and made learning fun and tangible. She emphasized relationships and because of that, she was able to reach even the most challenging students. I still keep in touch with her and it's a relationship I truly treasure.

MEA: What subjects did you like (or not)?

Jessica: My favorite subject in school was reading. I loved to learn new things and became fascinated about the world around me. My least favorite subject was history. The hardest subject for me was writing, and the most difficult thing about it was just getting started. I remember many days just staring at a blank piece of paper not knowing where or how to begin. I tackled this by learning how to just "go for it." Once I got something on paper, even if it wasn't that great, I could go from there.

MEA: Tell us about your first class.

Jessica: I started my career as a special education teacher. My first class included first through third graders who had disabilities ranging from intellectual disabilities to autism. I'll never forget my first day as a teacher. Within the first hour of the school day, one of my students ran out of the classroom and hid behind the building. The principal and I went to get him and he started throwing rocks at us and wouldn't stop. I remember thinking, "What is going on?"

My first year of teaching was a year of firsts and a huge learning experience for me. I grew some tough skin that year, but I also fell in love with being a teacher. My first class was an amazing group of students. To think that some of them are seniors in high school this year just blows my mind.

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MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Jessica: I think it's had a huge impact. Every day a new student comes up to me and asks me questions about my Award and my journey as a teacher. It has given me the opportunity to have conversations with students beyond my classroom about their future. I think it showed them that they too can achieve greatness with hard work and determination.

MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?

Jessica: That I believed in them and knew that they were destined for greatness. I hope they remember that learning was fun and that kindness and how you treat people matter most.

MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?

Jessica: I have an open-door policy in my classroom. Parents can drop by anytime. I love parent volunteers and I believe this partnership is so important. Parents are encouraged to volunteer in our classroom and participate in fun activities throughout the year. Whether we are celebrating a special holiday or students are presenting their research reports, I believe a strong parent and family presence is essential for students to see the connection between school and home. I send home weekly notes about what we are learning in class, as well as monthly newsletters highlighting different things going on in the classroom and upcoming events.

MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?

Jessica: First thing in the morning. We start each day with a morning meeting. This is a time where we build our classroom community and learn more about each other. I love getting to know my students and learning about what their life is like outside of school. Relationships are key and I believe building strong relationships with all my students is the way I get them to move forward. This time of building community is key to my success.

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MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?

Jessica: Meeting the diverse needs of my students. I work hard to meet not only their academic needs, but also their social, emotional and behavioral needs. When students are in many different places, it can be challenging to find time and resources to do this.

MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?

Jessica: I would build a state-of- the-art youth center that would benefit the whole community. This center would be a safe place where students could go after school to participate in sports, visual and performing arts, and programs that would help to build their character, confidence and leadership abilities. It would be fully equipped with the latest technology, gym and sports equipment and offer a variety of fun classes for all.

MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Jessica: I would be either a nurse or an event planner.

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MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?

Jessica: I think our nation can do a better job of shining a positive light on teachers and education, in general. Teaching is such a noble profession; however, I don't think we recognize teachers enough for their hard work, dedication and commitment to our students. Teachers have the overwhelming job of raising our future leaders and that is a role that shouldn't be taken lightly. New teachers can be motivated to stay in the profession by being supported heavily in their first few years. There's so much to learn! A strong support team is essential.

MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."

Jessica: ...when I see my students take risks without fear of making mistakes. That's when I know they feel safe, loved and supported, and they know I'll always be in their corner.


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