Palm Beach Central High School teacher Dr. Evangeline Aguirre got the surprise of her life recently when Palm Beach County School Superintendent Dr. Robert Avossa, Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw and School Board Member Marcia Andrews showed up at her school to honor her as the county’s teacher of the year.
“I was shocked. I was totally shocked,” Aguirre said of the Tuesday, Feb. 28 surprise. “When my assistant principal got me from the classroom, she said I was attending an emergency meeting.”
Looking around, she thought, “This seems serious.”
And it was. She was receiving a serious recognition. Aguirre was chosen from more than 13,000 teachers in the Palm Beach County School District for the recognition and will represent the district in statewide competition.
Also on hand for the big surprise was PBCHS Principal Darren Edgecomb and Aguirre’s husband, Stan Crooks, as well as dozens of her students and faculty colleagues. Aguirre specializes in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and has been at Palm Beach Central for nine years.
“It was an overwhelming emotion, but more than anything else, it’s a humbling, humbling experience,” she said. “I’m the president of Palm Beach ESOL… I know a whole lot of ESOL teachers, and teachers in different subject areas, who really are great, truly excellent, and they deliver to the best of their abilities every day in the classroom. For me to be chosen is truly an honor.”
Nevertheless, Aguirre is grateful that her efforts and dedication were recognized.
For Edgecomb, who nominated Aguirre, it was gratifying to see one of his teachers receive the coveted award.
“After observing for the last couple of years, I found her to be the ‘irreplaceable.’ She’s one of those teachers who, if she left, it would take years to find someone at her level of greatness,” Edgecomb said. “She’s a passionate educator, she loves teaching and she has a story to tell, being a person who migrated from the Philippines. She represents the American dream for those ELL (English Language Learners) or ESOL kids she educates. It’s the reading classes that she teaches, and I believe that reading drives everything here at the school. Having a school with literacy as the focus is extremely important, and she does this with kids who are acquiring the language.”
Aguirre previously received recognition as reading teacher of the year, and her portfolio made her a strong candidate for teacher of the year.
“When she was selected, I was just overjoyed. I felt that it was well-deserved. She has such a humble spirit, and her focus is always on the kids,” Edgecomb said. “I felt that they got the choice right, and I felt very excited for her and her kids.”
There’s a strong sense of pride at the school for Aguirre’s accomplishments. One touching display was evident when she returned to her classroom.
“When I got the award, and I went back to the classroom, my students were crying,” Aguirre recalled.
When she asked what was wrong, the following exchange occurred:
Student: “It’s real.”
Aguirre: “What do you mean?”
Student: “The American dream is real. It could really happen. If you work hard, you could really get recognized.”
That student had seen failure most of her life, and Aguirre was the closest image of success that she had ever seen, Aguirre explained.
“To see your teacher get recognition and succeed in her career, it meant so much to her,” Aguirre said.
It is moments like that which show just how much of an inspiration Aguirre is for her students. She came to the United States from the Philippines on a teacher exchange program in 2004. At the time, she was already an experienced teacher.
“I decided to teach for a year, and before I knew it, it was 25 years. I chose to stay in the profession because it’s something I really enjoy doing. It’s a profession in which I found a real sense of purpose,” Aguirre said. “It’s something through which I could make a difference in the lives of so many students every day. I am good at it. It is a skill that I do very well.”
She is also quite knowledgeable in the field. Aguirre holds a master’s degree in ESL (English as a Second Language), as well as a doctorate in instructional leadership.
She taught at Glades Central High School before moving to Palm Beach Central, where she teaches intensive reading in grades nine through 12 and also has a 10th grade English class.
“When my students enter my classroom, they feel safe and know it’s a very encouraging environment,” Aguirre said. “They know that regardless of their level of proficiency in English, regardless of their background, they are treated the same, and they are most welcome.”
Having a welcoming and inclusive environment goes a long way in enticing students to do their best, thrive and meet expectations. After all, many of them are in the lowest percentage of proficiency in the school. It isn’t that they don’t understand; they’re being tested in English, when they might not even be proficient in their native language. They’re also expected to understand cultural clues for a culture that is new to them.
“How are you going to deliver if you don’t speak the language?” she asked. “That is the dilemma and that is the challenge that every ESOL student faces.”
Aguirre teaches through cultural integration with multifaceted instruction to help the students understand the language in a classroom where all accomplishments are recognized the same, be it recognizing the alphabet or passing a test.
“I do a whole lot of collaborative learning. I do individualized instruction,” she said, adjusting to the varied needs of the up-to 25 teens in her classroom.
At the end of the day, she reflects on how lessons went, if students responded to activities, and what worked or didn’t work in the classroom. She is able to see the transition where instruction becomes learning, and finds that incredibly fulfilling.
With this recognition, Aguirre hopes to share what she does in her classroom with other ESOL teachers in the school district with the support of Edgecomb.
“He trusts me that I know what I am doing, that I deliver every day in the classroom. He trusts my instruction, he trusts my decision and he trusts my perspective,” she said.
Aguirre constantly pushes herself, investing in local, national and international personal development.
“I need to know more so I can deliver more. I don’t want my students to be stagnant in terms of learning, so I do not want to be stagnant as an educator myself. I do not demand anything of my students that I would not deliver myself,” she said. “If I demand excellence from my students, I should demonstrate the same thing.”
Her approach has worked. She learns from her students, and they learn from her.
“My students see themselves in me,” Aguirre said. “We tell the same story. We have the same story. We have the same struggles, adapting to a new culture, leaving family behind.”