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December 28, 2008

Class Acts: A Q&A with Denise Alvarez

Denise Alvarez was nominated by Marina McElhenie for Class Acts. McElhenie said Alvarez helped her son find his confidence. She teaches the students with the same drive year after year and presents the information in a fun way.

Name: Denise Alvarez

Age: 54

City of residence: Atwater

Occupation: Kindergarten teacher at Elmer Wood Elementary in Atwater

Family: Divorced, daughter, stepdaughter, stepson, adopted daughter and seven grandchildren

Background: After getting an associate degree, I found the teaching field saturated with people, men with Ph.D.s were putting tires on vehicles at the local GM plant because their were no teaching positions available. I decided to enter the business world, becoming an assistant manager at Payless Drug store and then a purchasing manager for an electronics company. While doing so, I married, becoming an instant mom and then had a daughter of my own. After leaving the business world, I wanted to pursue my love of teaching but I was only qualified to teach preschoolers. So I became a preschool teacher while going to school at night to get my bachelor’s and teaching credential.

Teaching experience: Twelve years as a Head Start/State Preschool teacher and 13 years as a kindergarten teacher. I have also tutored math for second-and third-graders.

Why did you get into teaching? I have always wanted to be a teacher since I can remember. My mom has said that I would gather my siblings and friends and “play school” with me as the teacher. I also always helped my brothers and sisters with their homework and my youngest sister, Lisa, claims that I was the one who taught her how to read. My dad was a science teacher at Evergreen Valley Junior College in San Jose, so I guess it is in my blood.

What is your favorite thing about being a teacher? I love seeing the sparkle in the kindergartners’ eyes and hear the excitement in their voices when they have finally mastered a skill, such as tying their shoes or understand a concept that they have been working on for a while. I also love running into past students at the store and hearing how they are doing and what they have accomplished.

What is the most challenging part of your job? Introducing students and parents to the education world with its expectations and requirements. Sometimes, we are the first teacher they meet and this is their first education experience. They learn that our funding depends on the students’ school attendance, even partial attendance counts. Test scores depend on academic knowledge as well as a good breakfast and a good night’s sleep. Academic success depends on parent involvement, which includes supervising homework completed by the student after school and not during breakfast, limiting TV, computer and video games and daily reading.

Favorite teaching tool or activity in the classroom: I love to read to my students. These days we very rarely get a chance to read a story for enjoyment. With the high state and federal standards, every opportunity is utilized as a teaching tool or mini-lesson, so stories are dissected from their very first introduction. As a response to this, when we return from our weekly scheduled library time, I select the library books from two students to read just for the enjoyment of reading. When I do this you can hear a pin drop; they are so engrossed. Some times that is the only time during the week that they are quiet. And even my parent volunteers have stopped to listen.

What’s next in your classroom? After the holidays, we have the big push to teach and learn everything that is needed in order to be able to read and write a simple sentence, add and subtract digits to 10 and be equipped with the skills and concepts for entry into first grade.

Advice for new teachers: The credential programs teach you to be able to teach the curriculum to your students. But it doesn’t prepare you to deal with the students’ behavior in the classroom and to deal with the issues they bring from home. I advise every teacher to take classes in child development, which will give you tools for managing behavior in your classroom and the ability to monitor and address at the classroom level the social, motor, emotional, academic, speech and language abilities and development of your students.

Advice for students: Never give up or take the easy way out. Life can be difficult, including education. And students aren’t helping themselves to get ahead in this world or to be successful by expecting someone else to do the work for them or telling them the answers. Some of today’s students are willing to “settle for second best” by copying to get things done faster or doing a sloppy job so they can get back to their computer or video game. Unfortunately, these aren’t the skills needed to be successful and be a positive member of society.

Advice for parents: Give your child responsibilities at home before they start their education. Little things like helping to clean up their bedroom, set the table, empty the dishwasher, and picking up after themselves will help them when they start school. It will make things much easier for the kindergarten teacher to teach the curriculum if the children will put their backpacks and jackets away, pick up their crayons and scissors that fell on the floor, throw their paper cuttings in the trash and get their work done without having to be reminded or expecting the teacher to do it for them. I realize that doing this will make the task take longer than if the parents did it themselves. And in this fast-paced world, time is precious. But they will be saving time in the long run. They will be raising children who will have a better chance of getting their homework done without persistent nagging or constant assistance by the parents. As well as raising children who will take responsibility for their own learning.

Future plans: To be the best teacher I can be until I retire and to financially be prepared for retirement. Unfortunately I am at that age where I have to be sure that I am pre-prepared for the future. In today’s society teachers have to be smart in order to have an adequate income and health insurance when they retire. When my father retired he received lifetime health insurance for him and my mother and could collect his teacher’s retirement pension in addition to Social Security benefits (if he qualified). That is nonexistent now. Unless things change, new teachers may not even have health insurance offered to them when they are hired and might not have a pension to collect or at least one to be able to live off when they retire. I know that this sounds pretty negative but right now, the future for the education field looks pretty bleak and probably will get worse before it gets better.

How do you to reach students not interested in school? As a teacher you have to get the students interested in a concept by hooking them, and getting them to buy in to learn the concept or skill. To do this, especially with today’s generation of students, you have to show how the learning is relevant or will be relevant in their lives. Even in kindergarten I have to show relevance and connect it to things they already know.

I also realize that there are different modalities of learning. Some students learn by putting things to song, or rhythmic movement while some learn by watching you model the skill or by rote practice. So I automatically present a skill or concept in many different ways, even though a program may present it only one way, so that every student will feel successful by learning it.

Last, I believe that every student, no matter what their home life is like or what their past is can and will learn. Once a student learns that you believe he or she will be successful in your classroom and finds out that they in deed are successful they become interested in their own learning. At Elmer Wood we set the education bar high for all students and the teachers believe that the students can and will obtain that goal. As a result the students do reach it and have surpassed it.

What would surprise people about your job? Most people think that “teachers are lucky because they get all of the holidays and summer off.” But the reality is that teachers are like stay-at-home moms, their work never ends. I bring work home to be done after dinner, work in my classroom on the weekends, and spend nights, weekends and holidays attending classes and seminars for professional growth and to learn about the new research in education. I am constantly evaluating how to better present a skill or lesson or how to reach a student. When I am on vacation I still have education in the back of my mind and am looking for new ways or activities to present concepts. My job does not end when I close the classroom door behind me.

What did you do on your summer vacation? First, I wrote three papers for an online class I was taking for professional growth, which were due by the end of June. Then I spent a few weeks visiting my children and their families and my parents, who live out of town. During the school year, visitations are very restricted, so I try to make up for lost time during the summer. Mid-July I took a weeklong workshop on the newly adopted math program. Then I spent a week getting my classroom ready, and preparing materials for the next school year and for the half-day, weeklong “Early Introduction to Kindergarten Program,” which I taught that the school offers to students who have had no or limited preschool experience. By that time, all teachers were expected to report to work for in-services by the district and then school started.


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