Super ecstatic, excited and honored. Those are just a few ways the Belen Consolidated Schools Teacher of the Year says she felt when she heard she’d been chosen for the recognition.

Joleen Avitia

“I am so honored to be selected, not only by my colleagues at my schools but by the district,” said Joleen Avitia, a kindergarten teacher at Dennis Chavez Elementary in Los Chavez. “This is an amazing accomplishment in my career. This set the bar kind of high, so I know I have to keep going. I am so appreciative of everybody around me. I’m thankful. It was just a wave of emotion.”

After being selected as site teacher of the year for DCE, Avitia was chosen from among 11 site teachers for the top honor.

As a child, Avitia would spend time in her grandmother’s classroom, reading to students, making copies and decorating bulletin boards. She also derived a great deal of satisfaction when she could help her grandmother’s students grasp a concept.

“That was solidified when I had kids, that love of education. Learning never stops,” Avitia said. “As long as you have a desire to learn, you can and will.”

Andrea Montaño, the principal at DCE, said Avitia made huge contributions to the overall culture and climate at the school for not only students, but staff as well, taking strides to instill some normalcy at the school after COVID, all while teaching and successfully managing 22 kindergartners in her class.

“One major contribution Ms. Avitia has initiated is the return of student leadership at DCE. Students in grades fourth through sixth apply for positions. She meets with the group biweekly and has organized them to complete civic duties such as trash pickup and promoting positive school culture,” Montaño said.

Student leadership allows students to grow their leadership skills and be good role models at school, Avitia said.

“It gives them a voice and lets them ask their peers what the want and don’t want,” she said. “It gives them a lot of responsibilities. Student voices need to be heard and this helps them understand how to be heard.”

Avitia also invited members of the Veterans Memorial to come to the school and educate the student leadership about the history of the U.S. flag and teach them the proper way to handle it, Montaño said, and the students are now working their way to be on flag duty.

“Student leadership initiated the return of fundraising, such as weekly popcorn sales,” the principal said. “Because of COVID restrictions, Ms. Avitia recruited a couple of other staff members and come in bright and early at least one day a week to make the orders. Student leadership is responsible for those deliveries.”

Another movement Avita began was “test buddies” during testing.

“Our primary classes adopted our intermediate classes … and made inspirational posters. Joleen spearheaded it and made sure all classes were covered,” Montaño said. “Every morning before school, you could find her and whatever helper she could get that day prepping to motivate students to do their best on the test. She and her helper would use colorful chalk and write inspirational messages all over the sidewalks.

“On top of all this, she just completed and passed her dossier, and will begin the next school year as a Level 2 teacher. DCE is lucky to have Ms. Avitia on staff. Her contributions have reached well beyond her own classroom.”

This school year is Avitia’s first at Dennis Chavez Elementary, and her third year teaching in her career. Her first two years were at La Merced Elementary, where she taught bilingual and kindergarten.

“I just want to say ‘thank you’ to all the DCE and Belen Consolidated Schools staff,” Avita said. “I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to work with Belen Schools and DCE. I feel at home.”

Belen Schools Site Teachers of the Year

Hollyanna Hooks: Belen Family School

Brian Martinez: Belen High School

Amanda Rankin: Belen Middle School

Debra Hedrick: Central Elementary

Clairessa Nicholas: Gil Sanchez Elementary

Manuel “Myles” Romero: H. T. Jaramillo Elementary

Luke Jaramillo: Infinity High School

Lea Canon: La Merced Elementary

Claudia Trujillo: La Promesa Elementary

Macario A. Gabaldon: Rio Grande Elementary

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.