A Q&A with Park Creek teacher Veronica Vital about how her background helps her relate to her students and become a better teacher.
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Dalton Public Schools celebrated American Education Week November 13-17 through the annual tradition of kindergarten photos with the superintendent!
I feel very lucky to be accomplishing my American Dream
Veronica Vital, 1st Grade Teacher at Park Creek
Higher Education: Dalton State College: Bachelors in Early Childhood Education and Masters in Curriculum and Instruction
Favorite Book – "The Glass Castle." In my spare time I also love reading National Geographic. I'm such a nerd. If I hadn't picked teaching, I would have loved to be an astronaut. In my other life I would have loved that because I just love science.
Favorite Music Group – a Mexican Group called Reik.
Favorite Snack or Drink – Cherry limeade from Sonic.
DPS: What is your background growing up?
VV: My family moved from Mexico City, but I grew up my whole life in Chatsworth – you can tell by my southern accent. Everyone thinks it's the funniest thing. I grew up with my five siblings, and it was hard for my parents. We lived in a single-wide mobile home, and we had uncles living with us, too.
In Chatsworth there were very few Hispanics. It was very hard for my parents to do homework with us. They didn't know the language; they didn't understand.
When I started going to school and learning English, I would help my siblings because I'm the second oldest, and my parents didn't understand the homework, so I was there to facilitate in a way. Even when my parents would go to doctor's appointments, pay bills, do little errands like that – I would be the translator. I was 7 or 8-years-old, and it was pretty cool to me because it was an adult thing to go talk to them.
DPS: What led you to become a teacher?
VV: In our small home, our porch was the only space to play. My siblings would play school, and that's how I would help them with their homework. I really liked that.
I started my career as a substitute at Park Creek. I graduated from Dalton State College in early May of 2011 so I had that whole month to sub before the schools let out for summer. During that time, I applied and they offered me a parapro position. After that I took a pre-K position and eventually kindergarten. Now I teach first grade, and this is my seventh year at Park Creek.
In the summers, I do the Pre-K Rising program and summer school. I also did a program at Park Creek called Cheetah U, where kids receive extra help, and I worked with third graders. I love doing it because, this may sound crazy, but in the summer I really miss my students. I hate sitting at home – I really want to be able to come to school and teach. I love what I do.
DPS: How has your background impacted your career?
VV: As a child, I know I didn't have those opportunities to grow and be a good learner, and that's the thing I love about DPS. They're always willing to help students and take that extra step. It's about the kids. Growing up, I guess because of where I was, they didn't really know how to work with students who needed extra help to learn English, and that was hard for me. The way we teach our kids, really teaching them to think outside the box – I wish I would have had that experience.
DPS: So the way you grew up helps you relate to your students.
VV: Definitely. I can really connect, relate and understand these kids. When I see parents come in for Open House, their eyes are wide – you can tell they're happy that they're going to be able to communicate with me. I wish my parents would have had that opportunity because I know they really tried to help me, but they didn't know how. I remember doing things in Spanish – my mom would teach us to write and speak properly – so I know it wasn't because they didn't want to help me.
Sometimes teachers might not understand what it's like to not know the language. It's not that [parents] don't want to help their kids at home or that they are not involved. It's just hard for them. Their parents are putting in 40 hours a week. They're doing what they're doing actually to push their children to be successful, and that's what I want to let the other teachers know.
I can really understand what it's like at their homes. With my kids, they might come to my classroom without doing their homework or eating breakfast. It's little things that sometimes we don't notice, but I do. Breakfast wasn't a thing at my home, it was like "you're going to eat at school" because that was the only way they could give us anything.
And I can see a lot of that here and with the language and the homework... I try to give them homework that they will definitely know how to do on their own – things we have just done in class together. But if there's something they don't understand, I always come in early in the morning and help them before class starts. They'll say "my mom didn't understand this," and I'll say, "That's fine! We can do it here now."
DPS: How would you describe the atmosphere in your classroom?
VV: I need my students as much as they need me. When we have our breaks, I miss them so much. Even when I have bad days, just seeing them makes my whole day. I think about them all the time – every single one of them. What are they doing at home? Are they getting what they need? You don't realize until you're in the classroom that you need them just as much as they need you.
I always say we are like a family. We have "family meetings" where they'll go to the rug and talk about a situation. We talk about how we don't hurt each other's feelings. One little girl was telling another that she wasn't her friend, and I was interested to see how they'd handle it. In our family meeting, another boy said, "we don't talk to each other like that – we are a family." It makes me happy to see them taking care of each other.
DPS: Are there any educators that inspire you?
VV: I admire Alice Ensley [district literacy coordinator] and want to be like her one day. She is awesome in the way she thinks and the way she makes me think and reflect as a teacher. With Alice, I try to learn as much as I can from her and implement that into my classroom. She'll tell me things she did in the past with her students and what worked, and I always take notes to try them out. I aspire to be like her one day because she really cares about the kids and what they need and their strengths.
My fourth grade teacher inspired me in the way I care for the kids. She was always asking how things were at home. She knew our needs; she knew we weren't a family that had much. Students need to know that somebody cares about them beyond the classroom. I think the classroom is sometimes the only place they have where they feel safe and they can be protected and loved. That's why I've created our classroom like a family. I know a lot of them have a hard life, even at this age. And I know because I lived it.
DPS: Why do you like this age group?
VV: I really love this age because they do still look up to you and want to please you. They want to do their best because they want their teacher to know they are capable of doing their best. The majority of students here are Hispanic kids, and it's a big plus for them to have a Hispanic teacher. It's kind of cool like being a role model for them. And they think it's the coolest thing ever that I speak their language.
DPS: What is your favorite lesson to teach?
VV: Something I love to do with my kids is getting them to practice critical thinking. For example, we are studying Ruby Bridges right now, and before I told them anything about her, I put up that famous picture of her walking with police officers. I had them talk with their partners and asked, "what do you notice about this picture? Who do you think they are?" It's so amazing to see the things they come up with, and it shows they are really thinking. Those are the things that will stick with them forever. They were very engaged and interested to know.
DPS: How do you come up with activities to get your students thinking?
VV: It's just about the kids and their strengths and needs. Those inquiry exercises are not something I did my first year of teaching or until I really learned what teaching was about. I plan based on my kids' strengths. At the beginning of the year I do a survey to see what they like. Using the things my students are interested in keeps them focused on what I'm teaching.
When I know a kid is struggling, I'll take out my literacy collaborative books. I'll find ways to help me know why they are thinking that way or why they are struggling. And from there, I get my ideas. So I always see what my students need and go from there.
DPS: What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
VV: This is my American Dream: I feel very lucky to be accomplishing my American Dream. I feel like my parents are proud. All the work they've done – you know, coming to a new country, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture and working the hours they worked... I think it's them seeing me where I am and not really "working." Because of their hard work, I've always been motivated to do my best because I know they brought us here for a purpose.Being with these kids and getting them to learn and knowing they can also be successful... that's really something I've liked. These parents want that for their kids, too. That's what my parents wanted for me.