Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Vanessa Torres (SC '16)

February 28, 2017

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Spanish teacher Vanessa Torres (SC '16) says her Milken Educator Award raised the value of language learning in her school and district: "There is no doubt that others see the significance of what I do." She became a Milken Educator on December 6, 2016, at Nursery Road Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina.

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

Vanessa Torres: As a little girl, I used to line up my stuffed animals and "teach" them the alphabet and their numbers. However, as I grew up, I started thinking about different careers, including dentistry (because I wanted to make people smile) and bilingual broadcasting (because I wanted to share information in multiple languages).

It all came together for me when I was in my senior year at Furman University, doing community service teaching ESL (English as a Second Language). I absolutely loved seeing the joy in my students as they learned to communicate in English, and I got to witness their lives change and doors open to them as a result. That same year one of my favorite professors, Dr. Maher, allowed me to teach a Spanish medical course to my classmates. I had absolutely no training in teaching, but it felt right, and others affirmed that I had a gift for teaching and that I should pursue it. Something clicked inside of me that year, and it was then I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life helping others through teaching.

MEA: Why did you decide to teach elementary school?

Vanessa: I was actually quite apprehensive about teaching elementary because I only had experience teaching college and high school students and wasn't sure what to expect. However, when I became a mom, I felt led to focus more on teaching children, and so I took the leap of faith to elementary. I have never regretted it.

My favorite thing about teaching kids is their energy and zest for learning. They are so eager to participate, act out stories, sing, dance, play games, and have fun! Moreover, I love the unabashed way children show love. They love to hug, draw me pictures, write me notes and say "Te amo" (I love you).

Their energy also happens to be the most challenging thing about teaching children. Sometimes their hyperactivity and excitability is difficult to calm down and channel. My first week teaching first grade I realized that I had a lot to learn when the kids all started rolling on the floor and I didn't know how to get them back in their seats! Since then, I've learned a lot about child development and classroom management, but there are still some aspects about their energy that mystify me.

MEA: What was your first job?

Vanessa: Babysitting. I learned so much about what kids like to do for fun, what kinds of boundaries they need, and what effective communication with children looks like. I also learned about conflict resolution between siblings. I learned that children thrive on lots of love, fun and silly times, and clear expectations and consequences.

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MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?

Vanessa: Janet Fanning. She was so much more to me than my fourth-grade teacher. She became a mother to me during a time when my parents' relationship was tumultuous. She believed in me, she would let me lead in class, she would write me encouraging notes, and she would pray for me and with me. Years after I left elementary school, she continued to play an important role in my life and was there for me during my parents' divorce.

MEA: Any educators in your family?

Vanessa: I come from a family of educators. My grandmother, mother, sister and aunt were all educators, but my father's influence really turned me on to education. When I was a little girl, he would work nights and spend days with me and plan different "classes" each day. Monday was music day and he would teach me to play different instruments. Tuesday was science day and he would take me on nature walks and teach me about plants, animals and bugs. Wednesday was art day and we would do things like finger painting. Thursday was library day and we would go to the library for story time, puzzle play and more. Friday was sports day and he would teach me how to play different sports. Saturday was playground day and he would take me to all the different playgrounds around town. Sunday was Bible story day and he would teach me about God. Not only that, but he would read to me every day and pray with me every night. He sparked in me a curiosity about everything around me in this great world, and taught me the immense value of education.

My dad attended every class I've ever taken and every class I've ever taught, from pre-K to the present. As a child I remember him coming to visit my school to read to my class and play kickball with us at recess, and as a young adult I remember him even coming to visit my classes overseas when I studied in Spain and Costa Rica. Moreover, since I've become a teacher, he has been a "special guest" at least once to all of my classes.

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

Vanessa: My favorite subject was sociology because it helped me to understand people, the world around me, and the societal forces that have shaped me into the person I am today. It was also really fun doing research projects like breaking social norms.

My least favorite subject was math; I found it both challenging and boring. Nevertheless, I was determined to do well, so I would go to tutoring and ask to borrow the math books over the summer to practice for the following school year. I would also take advantage of every opportunity to talk with my math teacher about what we were learning. I was fortunate to have caring math teachers who were amazing communicators.

MEA: Tell us about your first class.

Vanessa: My first year as a public educator was extremely challenging. I was teaching Spanish in an inner-city high school, and I came in with the expectation that students would want to learn Spanish because I was going to make it so much fun. It turned out that students would rather sleep in class, look at their cell phones and talk to their friends. I had things stolen in my room, fights broke out, and I was cursed out on several occasions. It was heartbreaking. I came home crying almost every day.

I understood early on that their own brokenness was causing my students to want to break me, and I decided not to take it personally. I decided that I would not let the challenges defeat me. Instead, I would learn from them and become a better teacher because of them. I prayed hard and had others praying for me daily. I learned about new methodologies and classroom management techniques, and I worked on building relationships with my students. I would go to their games and cheer them on. I would keep my door open at lunch so they could come and talk about what they were going through. I would give them rides if I saw them walking down the road. And little by little, I saw things begin to change, and I started seeing breakthroughs and miracles happen in my classes.

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

Vanessa: I think the Award raised the value of studying Spanish in the eyes of my colleagues and students. For the past five years I have made it a goal to raise awareness of the importance of Spanish (and language learning in general) in my school and district. I have tried to do this by teaching the benefits of language learning; showing my students famous bilingual Americans, such as Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, and Gwyneth Paltrow; teaching with research-backed methodologies, especially TPRS [Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling]; and wearing myself out to engage the children in Spanish to the absolute best of my ability.

Despite all my efforts, I still encountered some resistance to Spanish, and I often questioned how much others value foreign language education for elementary school students. Now, with the recognition of the Milken Educator Award, there is no doubt that others see the significance of what I do. The tide has changed and a newfound respect for learning Spanish is spreading, not only through my school, but through my entire district, and hopefully one day, through the entire country.

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

Vanessa: I hope my students will remember that they are fully capable of learning ANY language, and that learning another language is fun, beneficial, and completely relevant to their lives. To any student who says "I don't know Spanish," I say, "Not yet, but you will—and you will love it!"

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

Vanessa: I invite all parents, even my own, to come to Spanish class. Just last Friday a mom came to our class to observe her second-grader, who ended up being a main actor in a skit we did. In the skit we needed a mother, so I got my student's mom to play this role. It was awesome! She loved seeing her daughter speak fluent Spanish. I always invite my students' parents to come to our fiestas and field trips. Moreover, I ask students to go home and teach their parents the Spanish "passwords" they learn each day, and for homework, students read their parents books they create in Spanish.

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

Vanessa: The end of the day, when I'm walking past the playground to my car, and students always come running to hug me and practice their Spanish. This is so precious to me! I also love when we have school dances and the children want to dance and speak Spanish with me. Last Friday, in a school celebration, I was dancing with some first-graders to "Who Let the Dogs Out?" and they started shouting, "Los perros bailan [the dogs are dancing]!" Those moments fill my heart with joy!

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

Vanessa: Time. I teach 500 students, and I only get to see them once a week for 50 minutes. Holidays, assemblies, meetings, early release days, inclement weather, etc. often cut into my teaching time. Research indicates that to become proficient in another language, we need to be exposed for 30-60 minutes, three to five times a week. Every minute I have with my students is precious, and I must make the most of it. My colleagues think I'm a little loca [crazy], but when I'm not able to teach a class, I will give up a planning time to catch them up. I simply cannot waste a single moment.

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

Vanessa: I would probably build a language lab with software like Rosetta Stone and headsets where students could record their voices speaking in Spanish. I would also pay for Spanish cultural experiences for my students, such as going to see Spanish dance troupes, going to Spanish restaurants, taking students to the flea market, etc. I would purchase an entire Spanish library. I would also like to buy a script, props and equipment to put on a schoolwide production in Spanish.

Also, I'd purchase a new smart board for every teacher and hire a full-time masseuse teachers could visit during their breaks!

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

Vanessa: I would be a bilingual broadcaster or a professional Latin ballroom dancer. Those are two dream jobs I've always wanted to do.

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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?

Vanessa: Teachers are among the greatest superheroes this world has ever seen, and to encourage more young capable people to consider this as a career, we need to do a better job celebrating and promoting them. We must restore honor and respect to the role of educators. Moreover, teaching should be one of the highest-paid professions, because teacher salaries should reflect the value of the service they provide our country.

Convincing people to teach is the easy part. Retaining them is harder. While teaching is one of the most rewarding professions, it also happens to be one of the most challenging, and we are losing too many good teachers as a result. So many expectations are placed upon teachers, and those expectations rise each year. We are expected to prepare engaging, standards-based lessons incorporating the latest technology; differentiate instruction and meet the individual needs of every learner; keep up with assessments and grading; communicate regularly with all of our students' parents; manage our classrooms well and effectively rehabilitate "problematic" children; perform our daily duties; attend faculty and district meetings; go to schoolwide events; attend classes and professional development to maintain our certification, and more. What makes this even more challenging is that the time teachers are given to meet these demands gets less and less. Maintaining personal balance and being able to have a life outside of school gets more and more difficult as a result. Many teachers give up, I believe, because they simply feel overwhelmed by and unsupported to face these challenges.

Everyone in our society can support teachers and uphold them so they can keep doing their job as world-changers and not give up:

  • Parents can help by preparing their children for school and being involved in their education. They should help their children with their homework, read to them, talk with them about what they are learning, and visit the classroom.
  • Retired people can volunteer in their local schools, helping teachers with preparing materials for class, organizing classroom libraries, helping with after-school clubs, and serving as mentors.
  • Businesses can give to schools and school programs, and help fund teacher projects through organizations such as
  • Churches can pray for our teachers, administrators, and students.
  • The media can highlight the difference teachers are making and help promote them as local celebrities.
  • School administrators can give teachers the support they need through protected planning time, autonomy in the classroom, and, most importantly, backup in administering appropriate consequences for student misbehavior.
  • School boards can celebrate teachers' accomplishments on a regular basis, give them a voice in board decisions, and ensure that they have the necessary funding for technology, materials, and professional development.

Foreign teachers are even harder to retain than American teachers, because many are unaccustomed to American students and the American educational system. To support them, we should provide cross-cultural training in areas such as classroom management, best practices and technology use. I also think schools should celebrate the beautiful diversity that our teachers from other countries bring through cultural festivals, dances, food tastings, etc.

When teachers feel this kind of support in their school and community, they will persevere through the hardest days, go the extra mile, and do it with a smile.

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

Vanessa: ...when students can apply what I teach them within the classroom and beyond. When students move on to middle school, high school and college, and they love learning language and never ever give up. When students choose to study abroad. When students make friends with people who speak other languages. When students have the confidence to walk into a Spanish restaurant and make small talk with their waiter and order in Spanish, or go to the local flea market and barter with the Spanish-speaking merchants. When students choose to help Hispanics one day as translators, ESL teachers, nurses, immigration officials, businesspeople, etc. I know I will probably never know the extent of my impact, but I have high hopes that my students will be forever changed by learning another language and culture, and that they will be our future world-changers.


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