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College of Education alumna named Elementary School Science Teacher of the Year

College of Education alumna named Elementary School Science Teacher of the Year

by Emma Carberry
Outreach Coordinator, College of Education

December 7, 2018

Vanessa Gonzalez still recalls the day, during her first year as a teacher, that she met Dr. Julie Jackson, associate professor in the Curriculum and Instruction Department at Texas State University. “She was giving a lesson [at my school] on interactive word walls…and that opened up my mind to the idea that science can be so much fun,” Gonzalez remembers. This moment sparked her love for teaching science, and she began applying Jackson’s pedagogy in her own classroom. This November, almost twelve years later, the Science Teachers Association of Texas (STAT) recognized both women with prestigious awards. Jackson received the Skoog Cup College Faculty Award, which is presented to someone who has made significant contributions to the development of quality science education, while Gonzalez, living proof of Jackson’s contributions, was awarded Elementary School Science Teacher of the Year.

Vanessa Gonzalez (right) accepting the Elementary School Science Teacher of the Year award at STAT's annual Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching
Gonzalez (right) accepts the Elementary School Science Teacher of the Year award at STAT's annual Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching

Jackson’s lesson was also one of the reasons Gonzalez decided to pursue her master’s degree in Educational Leadership at Texas State. She had hopes of becoming an instructional coach and inspiring fellow educators in the same way that Jackson had inspired her. In her master’s program, Gonzalez was thrilled to work with Texas State professors, who she says have a unique ability to help their students understand who they really are, what their strengths are and how to contribute to their communities. Building on her newfound interest in teaching science, Gonzalez’s thesis focused on how children at play engage in scientific discovery.

This approach to teaching science struck a chord with Gonzalez, who immigrated from Ecuador when she was six years old. She recalls several negative classroom experiences she had as an English Language Learner in an English immersion classroom, which left her with gaps in her education. These negative experiences inspired her interest in teaching through kinesthetic learning - something she wishes teachers had done for her. “Kids learn so much when they are given the opportunity to first explore hands-on,” she says. She believes if she had been given that same opportunity, she would have been more engaged in her education and made connections to concepts more quickly.

As she worked on her thesis, Gonzalez remembers bringing her research into her classroom daily. This was one of her favorite aspects of her Texas State education, she recalls. She thoroughly enjoyed that she and her classmates were able to leave the Texas State campus and apply the concepts they had learned in their own work as teachers, instructional coaches and principals. Now, five years after earning her master’s degree, she is still eager to apply her outside learning in her own classroom. When she began working at Cambridge Elementary School in 2015, she noticed that the school wasn’t using the STEMscopes model that she had used previously and found to be an effective teaching and learning tool. Gonzalez took it upon herself to write a grant to bring STEMscopes to Cambridge, and the school eventually adopted the program.


"Kids learn so much when they are given the opportunity to first explore hands-on."

-Vanessa Gonzalez, '13

Gonzalez takes strides to constantly better herself as a STEM educator. In addition to her M.Ed. in Educational Leadership from Texas State, she has also been certified by San Antonio’s DoSeum to teach the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) model, which encourages creativity, ingenuity and problem-solving. She appreciates EiE because it allows her to learn more about her students, who work in groups to solve problems. When working on engineering tasks, “everybody’s out of their comfort zone,” she shares. Placing her students in these uncertain situations allows her to see the roles that emerge; who is the leader, who is afraid of taking risks, etc.

Evidently, Gonzalez herself is not afraid of taking risks. After graduating from The University of Texas at San Antonio with a degree in International Business, she began a career in international banking. However, she quickly began to desire a more social atmosphere. As she reconsidered her career path, she reflected on what she enjoyed doing as a child and remembered how much she loved pretending to be a teacher. After a year of exploring substitute teaching, she knew she had found her calling. She pursued an alternative teacher certification and began her teaching career at De Zavala Elementary, where she heard that meaningful lesson from Jackson.

Gonzalez feels that her recognition as Elementary School Science Teacher of the Year is a culmination of her efforts to make a difference in her students’ lives. It is also an acknowledgement of how her life experiences and the skills she’s learned have come together to empower her students in the science field. As Gonzalez puts it, “everything that I’ve learned, and that I’ve worked hard for, and that I’ve implemented using best practices…have all come together for me to be able to teach creatively and innovatively.” As Gonzalez continues to bring her creativity and innovation to the classroom, her students may one day reflect on what they enjoyed doing as children and remember how much they loved pretending to be engineers.