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Most Influential: For this Teacher of the Year, education is ‘personal’

Before she hit middle school, Alondra Diaz and her family had moved just under a dozen times, bouncing from place-to-place while her single mother worked jobs cleaning houses and as a seamstress.

Then there was a time the family of five was homeless. They moved in with friends and coworkers of Diaz’s mom, sometimes residing in “crowded places,” Diaz recalls. Without a stable home, “we were just being taken in.”

Despite the chaos, Diaz, now a teacher in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, went on to graduate college, earn a masters degree and launch a career in education with the dream of helping students and aspiring teachers recognize their unique potential.

Inspired by her educators and mentors growing up, Diaz focuses on supporting and empowering students as a dual language Spanish and English teacher at Ralph A. Gates Elementary School in Lake Forest.

She was recognized this year at both the county and state level as a teacher of the year, and was tapped to represent California in the national competition for top educators.

An Orange County teacher now for 15 years, Diaz has received several awards for her work, including being named 2020’s Woman of the Year in community and education by the National Hispanic Women’s Business Association and for her “unwavering support of English Language Learners” by the Orange County Department of Education in 2015.

But the road to her success as an educator wasn’t always smooth or straight. It curved about and doubled back.

Until her final year of elementary school, Diaz said she had resolved herself to being a poor, disruptive student, frequently making the walk to the principal’s office. A defiant ball of energy, she lacked the coping skills to deal with the disorder around her, she said, which often led her to act out.

“Distracting,” is how previous teachers described her, she said.

But in the fifth grade, her perception of the kind of learner she could be “totally changed” because of a teacher who made her feel safe and smart, Diaz said.

Suddenly she had a new theme in her life: When the world outside felt unsteady, school was a haven, thanks to teachers who built her up.

Diaz considers herself a product of all her past educators, a colorful patchwork of lessons and ideas that stuck with her, which she carries now into her own classroom.

Unique in her own right

Even through the mask she now wears every day in class, Diaz is incandescent.

Spirited and energetic, she is generous with her laughter, but equally as quick to well up if the moment calls for it.

Diaz shows her feelings in earnest.

Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares said Diaz had him “captivated immediately” during selection interviews for the county’s teachers of the year. So much so, he told her right away he thought she could be the national winner.

“I said that because she was infectious,” Mijares said. “She was humble and self effacing. It wasn’t all about her. It was all about her kids. And she just had this passion for serving students.”

Her devotion to and proficiency in helping students, particularly English learners, who “had struggled as she did as a young person,” was part of her draw, Mijares said.

“And she represents what we need in our classrooms,” he said.

Back when she was young, living in Santa Ana experiencing the depths of poverty, Diaz said she remembers that her family leaned on government programs. She and her siblings made meals from powdered eggs, a kind of fare she recalls now with both amusement and incredulity.

Diaz began that pivotal fifth-grade year “significantly behind” grade level, she said, but her teacher made her feel successful. In past classrooms, her first name was reduced by teachers to shortened versions such as Al or Aly, she said. But that year, she was Alondra.

“And she just met me where I was,” Diaz said of that teacher. “And so I think that sense of, you know, confidence, like it boosted my confidence. Like, wait, I can do this.”

Notably, the teacher asked the class to make a promise that year: “That we would all go to college,” Diaz said.

It was a concept the 10-year-old had really no grasp of, not having seen anyone in her family achieve that level of education. She took the challenge seriously.

Still, the remainder of Diaz’s primary education was challenging, most of all, the transitions to new schools as she reached middle and high school. She was “constantly getting into fights,” she said, and got suspended at least twice.

But over and over, she met teachers who put her back on the path to her dream.

“Every step of the way in my educational journey, I have found people who have believed in me so much, that I was able to continue to feed that hunger to be successful and to be a fantastic educator,” she said. “And so, in my teaching, I try to carry a little bit of all these people who have contributed in some way to to my journey as an educator.”

‘It’s so personal’

For years, school districts across the country have seen fewer teachers entering the profession, leading to shortages that were exacerbated during the pandemic. Diaz sees her colleagues “running away” from the industry because of burnout from the overwhelming workload and not enough support, she said.

She’s trying to help fix that, with small and big actions to help new and aspiring educators, especially people of color, get into the profession and stay there.

Diaz works with UC Irvine to mentor student teachers, and said she sits on panels at community colleges and high schools to get people excited about a career in education. Around her campus, she tries to make her colleagues feel like part of a community, she said.

Diaz has an even bigger platform now as a California Teacher of the Year to inspire future educators, Mijares said. If she is recognized at the national level, “she becomes an ambassador for not only the United States, but for the profession.”

Like many teachers, Diaz considers education more than just the way she makes a living. To her, “it’s so personal, because it changed the direction of my life.”

“I want to make sure that teachers who come into teaching with this love and passion, and even a sense that they can change the world, I want to keep these teachers here, because together we can change the world,” Diaz said. “We can make this place a better place. And I want them to know that they’re not alone.”

Swapping stories about experiences in the classroom also helps educators learn how to address the needs of their students, Diaz said, noting she’s adjusted her own techniques with the impacts she’s seen of the pandemic on kids.

After a year of virtual learning, Diaz said she has had too explicitly teach her third graders self- and social-awareness techniques in the classroom, like making eye contact and facing a person during a conversation. Some students are “losing control of their emotions,” she said, so an emphasis on de-escalation and helping kids identify emotions is also a focus.

A cornerstone of Diaz’s teaching style is making an effort to understand each student’s learning and personality differences, and meeting their individual needs in the classroom, she said. She gets emotional thinking of kids who might feel alone or without a dream like the one she held on to since she was 10.

“I’m living out something that I feel I’m meant to do,” she said. “And it was fueled and fed by the many people who surrounded me who wanted me to succeed. And that’s what I want for every student.”

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