In Any Language, She's Tops

Kindergarten teacher wins state teacher of year honor

LA HABRA—At Las Lomas Elementary School here, kindergarten children call Maria Azucena Vigil mi maestra, or my teacher. Their parents respectfully call her Mrs. Vigil. Now, the state has a new title for her — 1992 California Teacher of the Year.

In a moving ceremony at the Orange County Department of Education headquarters Wednesday that was packed with Vigil’s colleagues, cafeteria workers, school bus drivers and friends, State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig praised the 56-year-old grandmother of 15 for her dedication and described her as being on the front line of bilingual education.

“When she teaches, she’s understanding and kind at the same time,” Honig said.

Like more than a quarter of the state’s student population, most of the spunky 5-year-olds in Vigil’s class speak little or no English. School officials said Vigil stands out among instructors who expend the extra effort needed to strengthen their young students’ language skills while teaching them their ABCs and 1-2-3s.

“I am so honored to have this award and I share it with all the teachers,” Vigil said in an interview in her classroom before the award ceremony, as one of her students tugged at her seeking a hug. “Every time I walk into my classroom, it never feels like a job. It feels like children are learning.”

Vigil’s award, school officials said, is even more special because it’s not often that the state Department of Education chooses a kindergarten instructor as Teacher of the Year. Because the award committee routinely interviews students to get their opinions, kindergarten teachers are often left out of the competition because their pupils cannot express themselves as well as older students, said Las Lomas Principal Mary Jo Anderson.

The award’s committee, appointed by Honig, started with a pool of more than 50 nominees submitted by county education departments. It then pared the nominations down to eight semifinalists, who were then monitored in their classrooms, and further pared the list down to four finalists — Gary T. Bacon of Los Altos High School in Santa Clara County; Dori M. Viel of Hayfork High School in Trinity County; Linda L. Wiezorek of Los Berros Elementary School in Santa Barbara County and Vigil, who was named Orange County Teacher of the Year earlier this year.

“The kids love her,” Anderson said. “She makes the classroom a nurturing place for everybody. She wants her programs to be meaningful and valuable, but at the same time she wants everyone to look good and feel good.”

Take Vigil’s lessons on apples. Not only do her students learn how to make juice and sauce from the fruit, they also learn how to count with apple slices, distinguish colors and plant seeds.

“Maria can take an everyday thing like an apple and turn it into an educational tool,” Anderson said. “You can look at all her students and tell that she is really reaching them. Their eyes are all wide and happy.”

That eagerness, Anderson said, is shared by the students’ parents. Every month, Vigil teaches two classes for parents who want to help their children with their studies but often lack the skills to do so. Sometimes, the lessons are in basic math. Other times, Vigil gives the parents hints on how to encourage their children. Her advice is often disarmingly simple: “Listen to the children.”

Similarly, Vigil’s kindergarten classroom is simple, but effective. Her desk is shoved against a corner and covered with storybooks. The children sit on the carpeted floor and hug teddy bears while Vigil reads to them from a rocking chair. Occasionally, she will sit on the floor and gather her students around while they count or hear a Mother Goose tale in Spanish.

“I refuse to have a desk separating me from my children,” Vigil said.

Vigil teaches mostly in Spanish and slowly integrates English into the children’s daily instruction. The children feel more at home when they hear their own language in the classroom, Vigil said. Even the artwork tells youngsters they are welcome — a poster with a poem entitled “Yo Soy Yo” (“I Am I”) is posted on the classroom piano.

Vigil is only in her second year of teaching kindergarten after years of teaching first-graders. A mother of seven, she decided to become a teacher when she was 30. She earned her teaching certificate and became a bilingual teacher in 1971 in the Santa Ana Unified School District.

Parent Lupe Garcia, who attended the award ceremony, said her daughter, Luisa, was in Vigil’s class last year and still calls her maestra. Every day, Luisa would rush home to tell her mother how much fun she had in school.

“She would talk about her teacher and about all the poems and songs she learned that day,” Garcia said through a translator. “We felt so wonderful that our daughter was learning in school.”

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