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Posted December 7, 2010

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Son’s Illness Inspires First-Grade Teacher to Keep Positive Attitude

Ursula Chavez Gonzales, a first-grade teacher at Lowell Elementary, is recognized as Teacher of the Month by the APS Education Foundation, Pepsi and Principal Manuel Alzaga.

Ursula Chavez Gonzales’s son was just 3 years old when he needed a liver transplant. Watching her little boy go through life-threatening surgery altered Gonzales’s attitude toward her own life and the teaching profession.

“I used to be the kind of person who needed to be in control, who wanted to know exactly what’s going to happen and when,” said the Lowell Elementary School teacher. “Now, I try to make every day the best it can be, because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Gonzales’s good attitude earned her the Teacher of the Month recognition for November.

Pepsi, in partnership with the APS Education Foundation, recognizes APS teachers for their outstanding contribution to the classroom, school and community. The Foundation randomly selects an APS school each month, and that school’s principal is asked to choose the teacher to be honored. The teacher receives a $50 check from Pepsi and acknowledgement on the APS website and Facebook page.

“She is always so positive, and that’s half the battle right there,” said Principal Manuel Alzaga said of Gonzales, who has been a first grade teacher at Lowell for three years. Before that, she taught at Los Ranchos Elementary and in Belen.

“What makes her stand out is her smile. And her attitude. Any time I ask her to do anything extra, even if it means she doesn’t get paid for it, she happily does it. She always goes above and beyond,” Alzaga said.

Gonzales’s son, Sebastian, is now a healthy 8 year old, just a couple of years older than the students she teaches at Lowell.  Gonzales acknowledges that kids that age can be challenging to teach, especially when language and socioeconomics become barriers to learning, as is the case for most of her kids.

“My kids come to school without backpacks, wearing the same clothes day after day. That can be hard to deal with as a teacher and a parent,” Gonzales said. “But before I assume anything, I try to put myself in their situation. I realize that sometimes all they need is a snack, or a sticker, or a hug.”

Eighteen of Gonzales’s 21 students are English Language Learners, and part of her challenge is not only teaching them to read, but teaching them to read in a foreign language. She said their parents want their children speaking English to assure better academic success.

To accommodate her ELL kids, Gonzales finds creative ways to teach, using lots of visuals, lots of hands-on learning, lots of repetition.

“I’m constantly learning from my kids,” she said. “As a teacher, you never stop learning. Every year you learn something new. That’s what makes it exciting. All children are different. Every year it changes.”

Alzaga said not only is Gonzales a good classroom teacher, but she also works really well with families and the Lowell staff. “She’s really well rounded. And her kids love her.”

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