After just five years in education, CPS kindergarten teacher Virginia Valdez has received statewide recognition for her innovative teaching methods and tireless commitment to Chicago’s children.
Awarded by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), the Outstanding Early Career Educator Award honors teachers who have demonstrated excellence in the teaching profession in the first five years of their careers. Valdez, a kindergarten teacher at Minnie Mars Jamieson Elementary School, received the award on October 19 at the ISBE’s annual “Those Who Excel” banquet.
“I was shocked, honored and excited,” said Valdez. “It meant a lot to me that this organization was acknowledging the work I’ve been able to do.”
It is ironic, given her early success, that teaching was not the career that first appealed to Valdez. Prior to her role in the classroom, she worked as a budget analyst, education researcher, public resource director and grant writer, and while she was very successful, she often felt a lack of fulfillment.
“I had a lot of professional experiences, many of them connected to the education of children. But what I eventually realized was that I wanted to work with kids directly,” she said.
So after much reflection and soul searching, Valdez returned to school to earn her teaching certificate. She entered a program called the Bilingual Transitions to Teaching Project – a partnership between Northern Illinois University and the Illinois Resource Center to increase the number of bilingual teachers in Illinois classrooms.
After three years of instruction, professional development and hands-on classroom experience, she exited the program with a M.A. in Elementary Education and certifications in both ESL and Bilingual Education.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Valdez. “I had so many opportunities to learn from and work with expert teachers that I felt very prepared to begin teaching primary school students.”
At Jamieson, Valdez has a very diverse kindergarten class, with students representing such countries as Greece, Romania, Vietnam, Mexico and Pakistan.
“Many of my students don’t speak a word of English when they start kindergarten,” said Valdez. “But by the time they leave, all are conversing in full sentences and most are reading at above kindergarten level.”
Valdez attributes her success to her structured teaching style, which includes a great deal of individual attention, early communication in short sentences, visual modeling of content and the comfort and routine of a predictable classroom.
“It’s challenging to have a group of students at a wide range of levels,” she said. “But I like a challenge. It pushes me to continue to learn and improve my practice.”
Valdez was nominated for the ISBE award by her principal, Robert Baughman.
“From the day she arrived at Jamieson, Ms. Valdez has been an extremely conscientious, hard-working professional who gives greatly of herself to be sure all her students have the opportunity to succeed,” said Principal Baughman. “She consistently attends professional development to improve her own understanding of teaching, learning standards and child development, and annually plans and writes grants to facilitate greater parent involvement in both her classroom and the school as a whole. She is reflective, supportive, and a pleasure to work with.”
While she has worked in numerous professions, Valdez considers education the place where she is most likely to learn and be challenged.
“I love teaching, because I’m able to use my creativity more than in other jobs,” she said. “And I’m always reflecting on my practice and what I can learn that might make me better. Because in order to be an effective teacher, you must be a lifelong learner.”