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When Carolyn Torres, a math and science teacher at Chamisa Elementary School, won the Teacher of the Year Award for Los Alamos earlier this year, she automatically became a finalist for the state title — just like the 89 other teachers that won for their districts throughout the state.
Tuesday, it was announced she won the state title.
To put that in perspective, there are roughly 860 public and charter schools throughout the state, each staffed by an average of 20 teachers.
Chamisa Elementary celebrated the day with a school assembly, where staff and her peers congratulated Torres as she sat where she seemed to be the most comfortable — right in the middle of her third grade class.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gene Schmidt highlighted this fact during a special school assembly honoring Torres’s accomplishment.
“I think of all of the schools, of which there are more than 800,” he said to the students, “I think of all the teachers in those schools of which there are more than 16,000, and here in Chamisa, you have the very best one.”
According to Debbie Smith, principal at Chamisa Elementary, Torres brings to her classroom the right level of variety and challenge for her students, making math and science fun to learn. She doesn’t believe in the word “can’t,” either.
“She really hopes that every student in her class believes they are a mathematician by the time they leave her class,” Smith said during the assembly. “Also, she makes ‘Thinking Thursdays’ and ‘Foundation Fridays’ for you guys, so you can feel really excited about being a mathematician and thinking like a mathematician.”
The Teacher of the Year Award is sponsored, in part, by The New Mexico Public Education Department and TEACHNM, an organization that offers teachers career guidance. A large part of the competitive scoring comes from the testimony of peers and colleagues on the teacher’s behalf. The score is also based on a description of how and what they teach and how they apply Common Core techniques.
Torres has been teaching for 23 years, having taught at Santa Fe High School, Placitas Elementary School, Brown University Summer School (Providence, R.I.), Bernalillo Middle School and Los Alamos Middle School before arriving at Chamisa in 2005. Besides being a teacher, she’s a math coach, an official mentor to other teachers and is a member of many boards and organizations, including the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and the National Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
Torres said there are many exciting and rewarding aspects to teaching, but the very best come from those moments of revelation her students experience, when they make that turning point where they want to learn more.
“I love seeing when students start to understand something, their excitement for learning,” she said. “There’s nothing better when you have a struggling student who finally realizes when something works, and the light bulb goes on.”
Los Alamos Board of Education member Matt Williams, who also volunteers as a math coach at Chamisa, was among the peers who recommended Torres for the award.
“She’s always looking for some way to teach something new, another way to look at things, another way to get the children to understand the subjects she teaches,” he said at the assembly.
One of the things that caught the judge’s attention was Torres’ “Foundation Fridays,” where she sets up individual stations in the classroom. At each station are real-world problems the students have to solve using what they’ve learned in the Common Core curriculum.
“They rotate around through the activities and while they’re doing that, I can pull out small groups for one-on-one or one-on-three differentiated learning,” she said.
“Based on what I discovered in the last week, I can remediate a topic and have the full, undivided attention of just a few kids.”