Spotlight: 10 Questions for Melanie Alfaro (NM '17)January 2, 2018
Melanie Alfaro (NM ’17) began her career in the classroom after her son was born: “I wanted to be the type of teacher that I hoped my own children would have.” She received New Mexico’s Milken Educator Award at Deming Intermediate School on November 30, 2017.
1. What went through your mind when you heard Jane call your name at your surprise notification?
Melanie Alfaro: I was in complete shock. I can honestly say that this was the surprise of my life. I also appreciated that it was “top secret”—if I had known about the Award in advance, it would not have had the surreal effect that it did.
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Melanie: My students were so excited for me! They were proud and wanted to know what I was going to do with my money. Several of my students have asked about the big check, so we are in the process of finding the best place for it in the classroom. I speak to my students a lot about hard work, never giving up and always doing their best. I believe that when they saw me receive this Award it was proof that everything I always tell them can pay off.
3. How did you end up in education?
Melanie: When I was growing up I never thought of being a teacher as something I wanted to do. In fact, working with kids was the furthest thing from my mind. In college I studied business with a focus in human resources. I worked in the Human Resources department at our local hospital and I was very happy there.
It wasn't until I had my first child that I began to realize how important a good education was going to be for him. I enjoyed teaching him his letters, colors, numbers, etc. Not long after that, I realized that I wanted to teach. And not only that: I wanted to be the type of teacher that I hoped my own children would have. So here we are. Every day I strive to be that teacher parents want for their own children.
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Melanie: When I was a sixth-grader, I had this amazing student teacher named Denise Ellis (now Denise Ruttle). I remember vividly the way she made me feel as a student and the work she put into teaching my class. She had a profound effect on me as a student and I strive to be just like her. In an interesting turn of events, she is the one who hired me at Deming Intermediate School eight years ago, and she was my boss for six of those years.
Aside from Denise’s impact, my other role models are those who teach to have a positive impact on childrens’ lives. I see so many educators, especially in my school, working tirelessly to make a difference. I am extremely grateful to all of them.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Melanie: My husband helped me persevere. I was at a breaking point one night and I needed to figure out how to teach the students about plant and animal cells. My husband and I decided to have the students make the cells using different colors of felt. We did some planning and I implemented the lesson the next day in class. The students loved it and I felt accomplished.
I realized at that moment that I was just like the students. They were learning, and so was I. If I was going to encourage them to work hard, always do their best and never give up, I had to do the same. I tore up my resignation letter that night.
My first year was difficult, challenging and unforgettable in the toughest of ways, but I wouldn't change any of it. It motivated me to find ways to get better, and it inspired me to constantly reflect on my craft and make changes that best suit the needs of my students.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Melanie: I believe that most of my students will remember the way they felt when they were in my classroom. I do my best to empower my students and let them know that they matter. They understand that they don't have to like math to be good at it or improve, but they do need to know the importance of math in their life. I think they'll also remember the direct connections we made relating math to their life outside of my classroom.
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Melanie: Transforming the minds of students who don’t like math because they feel they aren't good at it or are behind. Many students who think they stink at math put up walls. Helping them break down those walls is challenging but rewarding.
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Melanie: I told my students that the first thing I am going to do is dye my hair because teaching for 10 years has given me a fair amount of gray hair! They got a good laugh at that. We’ll see how many of them notice. We are going to pay off some debt and put the rest in savings for now.
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Melanie: The first thing to do is identify the passion they have for education. I don’t think teachers can truly make a difference in the lives of students if they’re lukewarm about education. I’d tell them that being an educator is one of the hardest things they will ever do, but also one of the most rewarding. There is no greater feeling than knowing you are making a difference in young lives.
10. What’s your definition of success?
Melanie: Being able to set a goal for yourself and either meet that goal or close the gap to meeting that goal.
It’s important to note that success looks different for different students. Let’s look at two sixth-graders. The first student comes in at a sixth-grade math level and exits at a 7.5-grade math level. That is success. The second student comes in at a third-grade math level and exits at a fifth-grade level. That is success, too. Now let's say that the second student set a goal of leaving sixth grade at a sixth-grade level. Even though the student didn't meet that goal, he was still successful because he closed the gap significantly.
Success doesn’t always relate to setting goals. I didn’t set a goal to win the Milken Educator Award—I didn't even know it existed prior to receiving it. But receiving the Award because of my hard work has made me feel extremely successful!
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