Sara Vasquez doesn’t take for granted any moment of her busy days.
She wakes up each morning full of optimism, knowing she gets to spend the rest of the day helping others as a sixth-grade teacher and a high school basketball coach.
“I love it all so much,” Vasquez said. “I don’t think of this as a job. I get to have fun with kids and see their growth every day. I love to see them go from, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ to ‘Oh, I got this. I know how to do this.’ That’s why I teach and why I coach.”
Vasquez may only be in her first year as a sixth-grade teacher at Aspen Meadow Public School in Fresno, California. But her impact has been immeasurable and led to her receiving Summit Learning’s “Teacher Spotlight” honor, a monthly celebration for educators who go above and beyond to provide meaningful learning experiences.
“Her students love her,” said Hilary Downs, the Director of Summit Learning for Aspen Public Schools. “She has a great, well-managed, and engaging classroom.”
This is no ordinary first-year teaching experience for Vasquez. She spent last year as a teacher’s aide at Aspen Meadow, working closely with fifth- and sixth-grade students under the guidance of sixth-grade teacher Bailey King.
King served as an inspiring mentor for Vasquez, who was excited to continue learning from King as an aide. But in July, days before the new school year, King tragically died from a car accident at the age of 29.
Amid unthinkable sadness, Vasquez thought of King’s students and wanted to do whatever she could to help them grieve and honor their teacher. She was humbled and grateful when Aspen Meadow offered her the full-time teaching position to replace her mentor.
That’s why Vasquez quickly deflects any mention of a “spotlight” recognition and credits her teaching success to King.
“She taught me everything that I know right now,” Vasquez said. “Everything that I do and all that I’m trying to instill in these kids is what Bailey taught me while I was here with her.”
After accepting the position in July, Vasquez worked closely with her school’s administration and counselor to form a plan to help students work through their feelings about King’s passing.
“We were in discussions about how we could create that place where it’s okay to be vulnerable and it’s okay to talk about what’s happening,” said Vasquez, who knew her sixth-grade students well after working with them last year. “All of us were going through it. It wasn’t just one person. So that created a bond within us all at the beginning.”
The bond between Vasquez and her students is especially evident when Vasquez walks around to the small groups in her class and notices them applying what she’s taught to their projects. Vasquez encourages every student to have a voice in her classroom and to work through problems with their peers.
“It’s organized chaos at times, in a good way,” Vasquez said. “Our students help one another and it’s been amazing to sit back and watch them become teachers themselves and not just listening and learning.”
Vasquez first realized she wanted to be a teacher in high school when she coached a youth basketball team and found joy in watching each of her players improve. Vasquez, who went on to play basketball at William Jessup University in Rocklin, Calif., now spreads her competitive mindset to her students at Aspen Meadow.
“I use sports analogies all the time because I want them to be competitive within themselves,” said Vasquez, who coaches girls basketball with her father, Joe, at Immanuel High School in Reedley, Calif. “We don’t have to show that competitiveness out loud. But we can have it within ourselves at all times and within our mentor meetings. How did we grow? How did we get better from the last time we talked?”
At the school’s recent Jog-a-Thon fundraiser, Vasquez couldn’t resist a 20-second race against one of her sixth-grade students who had challenged her.
“I couldn’t let him beat me,” she said, laughing.
It was a fun moment in a school year that started with so much sadness and has turned more joyous each day. Vasquez will never forget the lessons she learned from King, and hopes her mentor is proud of how her former students are growing under her leadership.
“This group has had to go through so much already,” Vasquez said. “When (King’s accident) happened, we were all like, ‘What’s going to happen to the kids? Who’s going to be their teacher?’ So coming into this year, I’ve just really been trying to be there to support them, and be a foundation for them.
“At the end of the day, I just really love being around these kids.”
Do you know a Summit Learning teacher who is going above and beyond to support their students? If so, please nominate them to receive the Summit Learning Teacher Spotlight through this form.