Q&A: Austin ISD teacher of the year winners talk about innovation, remote teaching and community

Austin ISD announced its four teacher of the year winners April 17. (Source: Austin ISD/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin ISD announced its four teacher of the year winners April 17. (Source: Austin ISD/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin ISD announced its four teacher of the year winners April 17. (Source: Austin ISD/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin ISD announced the four winners for this year's Austin ISD Teacher of the Year honors April 17.

The Area 1 Elementary School Teacher of the Year was Sandy Chilton, a kindergarten teacher at Uphaus Early Childhood Center who has taught for 14 years. In Area 2, Wooten Elementary School bilingual kindergarten teacher Emily Galindo Placette received the honor. At the middle school level, seventh grade ELA teacher Liliana Barrientos received the honor for Mendez Middle School, while Akins High School Law Teacher Armin Salek received the high school award.

"These teachers are examples of the best models for how we are reaching out to our students and ensuring that the mission of AISD is going forward—with ensuring that we graduate every child college, career and life ready—and we appreciate all of their commitment and work and passion, especially right now with [the COVID-19 pandemic]," AISD board president Geronimo Rodriguez said at a news conference April 17.

How does it feel to be selected as teacher of the year?

Barrientos: “This was a really exciting day. I was very happy to be able to see my colleagues this morning and to share this moment with them. To be recognized for doing something that we love, it doesn't really get better than that.”

Chilton: “To be teacher of the year is an honor. It's amazing to be recognized in a field with fantastic people who all care about families and students, and they are out there doing the work every day. To be recognized for doing something that I love to do is just an honor that is amazing and I'm very grateful for.”

Placette: "I'm really excited to be the teacher of the year. It's an honor, especially to be selected among so many of the amazing, hard-working teachers. I'm so grateful for the support of the teachers at my school, my principal and my family."

Salek: "I grew up in Austin ISD, so I know how amazing the educators we have in this district are, and I know that we have more than 200 amazing teachers at Akins High School, so even winning it on campus was just an absolutely phenomenal feeling knowing that I had [support from] the rest of my peers. To receive it district wide is something that I'm proud of as an Austin ISD graduate and an Austin ISD teacher.”

What specifically makes you stand out as a teacher?

Barrientos: “For me, I think it may be the importance of building meaningful relationships and creating a smart and safe classroom environment for the kids. Most teachers will tell you how crucial that is to having a successful classroom. Once students become comfortable in your learning space it becomes their learning space. At our campus it is [about] creating that safe environment, that place that they can go with someone they can trust, and then the learning can take place.”

Chilton: “I think it’s my belief for early childhood and the power of play, and how kids learn that way. It makes them better students for my upper elementary and middle and high school colleagues, but it also gives them those skills at communication and critical thinking that are going to help them be successful in life.”

Placette: "As a teacher I have created a unique learning environment for my students. They're excited to come to school each day. If you walk into our classroom you will see students engaging and collaborating with each other. It might be role-playing at the grocery story or reading books, or using individualized technology devices. I'm constantly looking for ways to provide opportunities to all students, especially those who are underserved.”

Salek: “At Akins, it's all about differentiating our students from other students. These students are competing against the top students from around the country, and we have to make sure we are giving them opportunities to distinguish themselves. In my law program we make sure that the curriculum is unique for our students. We make sure that we offer internship opportunities that don't happen anywhere else. That means our students are conducting intake, meeting with actual clients, and they learn that they can truly transform their community.”

How have you transitioned into online distance learning and how have students responded?

Barrientos: “It's definitely been a learning experience for a lot of us. We have collaborated a lot as teachers on our campus on different levels to build a curriculum to go online. I know our district did an amazing job at getting technology to our students which was crucial for this, and kids are getting the hang of it. We are slowly but surely adding numbers to our Google classrooms and kids are signing on, they are asking questions and they are completing work. They are invested in completing the school year successfully, which is amazing to see. And they see the teachers working hard and they are working hard on their end too.”

Chilton: "It's definitely been hard, especially because as teachers we have so much value in that connection that we have, and making that one-on-one good greeting during the day and getting the kids together. That magic that happens in the classroom is definitely missing from online learning. For teachers and families who are trying to navigate that new norm, they are really struggling to make it work but we are all doing our best to make it work. Even though we miss it, we are going out of our way to make connections through whatever means necessary. For some of us it is an online platform, for some families it's just calling them once a week to chat with a student and [hearing] what's going on with their days because they don't have access to some technology.”

Placette: “During these times I've worked with others teachers to transition to the at-home learning platforms. I work with families. We communicate and meet with the kids one to one or with the full class, and they are so happy to see each other. So we have continued learning as much as possible. We are all working together and teachers are collaborating, but hopefully we can get back to the classroom.”

Salek: “As a high school teacher you have to understand that our high school students are the ones keeping the city running in a lot of ways. If you go to the HEB on Riverside, those are Eastside Memorial students working. If you go to William Cannon, that's Travis High, and if you go to the one on Slaughter those are Akins students. A lot of our students are putting food on the table, and there's a lot of questions about their futures so [they are doing] anything they can do to support their families.”

“It's also an opportunity to look at ways we can take advantage of the situation. This week I've had attorneys on the line with us on Zoom meetings because a lot of them are on pause like we are, and we can take advantage of this opportunity to bring them into the classroom and benefit from their instruction.”

What does getting this honor and being a teacher mean to you during the coronavirus pandemic?

Barrientos: “As exciting as it is to be recognized, the first people I really want to share this with is my students. And I was very sad that I won't be able to see their literal faces and give them hugs through this, but I look forward to the day we can celebrate it together as a campus. Right now we have to stay safe.”

Chilton: “It's amazing to be recognized even during this time when connection and being with each other is so important. We are still being able to recognize the teachers who are out there trying to be heard and that stable connection [for students] daily. We are really excited that we do get to be there for our kids.”

Placette: “People are recognizing that teachers are such a crucial part of the community and individual teachers with unique talents and strengths are really shining at this time. We are working together and collaborating to share those talents with each other and our students. It's caused us to reach out to our community and help as much as we can.”

Salek: "This is a great opportunity to reflect back on why we were nominated in the first place and why our schools picked us, and to try to think about how we can replicate that remotely. We have different challenges. We are trying to rebuild relationships and maintain them because we [at the high school level] were all sad that we're not going to end up at graduation in a few months. Obviously we're having to say bye and to keep up our digital relationships a little bit earlier than expected.”