Dover Elementary educator Maribel Lopez named teacher of the year
on April 29, 2015
It’s an early Thursday morning and Maribel Lopez is about to read Eric Carle’s “The Tiny Seed” to her bilingual second grade class as they learn about a plant’s growth cycle. The students are all seated “crisscross applesauce” in their blue and white uniforms, waiting patiently to hear Lopez begin reading.
Lopez was just recognized as one of 22 of Contra Costa County’s teachers of the year—one of the two from the West Contra Costa Unified School District. According to the Contra Costa Office of Education, a committee of 14 judges selected the teachers after carefully reviewing the applications submitted by their school districts. “I was really surprised by it,” said Lopez, who has only been teaching for four years. “I was in the middle of teaching and the secretary calls me and says, ‘I have an important message for you.’”
Before teaching at Dover Elementary in San Pablo, Lopez lived just two short blocks away from the school, which she attended as a young girl. She attended Helms Middle School and Richmond High School as a teenager before graduating in 1998.
But she didn’t initially consider a teaching career. After graduating from high school, Lopez worked at her parents’ former restaurant, El Sitio, on Market Avenue and 23rd Street. Then she worked in graphic design while attending Contra Costa College, and soon after she graduated from UC Berkeley with a social welfare degree in 2011. At the time, Lopez was considering a career as a social worker.
While at UC Berkeley, one of her sociology professors screened a documentary in class about the worst and best schools in the nation. “The worst school they focused on was Helms, my middle school, and I was shocked,” said Lopez. “I knew it wasn’t a great school when I went there, but I didn’t think that it was one of the worst in the nation.” After class, Lopez approached her sociology professor to discuss the film. “He was like, ‘I know you’re really passionate about social work, but you should do that work in the classroom,’” she said.
And that’s when the seed was planted.
Upon graduating from UC Berkeley, Lopez applied for Teach for America, a non-profit organization that places recent college graduates to teach for two years in low-income communities. Lopez was accepted by the organization and was placed at her first choice pick, Dover Elementary. The first classroom she ever taught in was her old fifth grade classroom.
Now Lopez is in her fourth year of teaching, with two years of bilingual kindergarten and two years of bilingual second grade under her belt. According to Lopez, some of the biggest challenges the public education system faces are recruiting quality teachers, and trying to get people interested in the teaching profession. Lopez also adds that some teachers are concerned with the lack of training and support.
Lopez says that since her class is bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish, the students’ Spanish-speaking parents sometimes struggle with navigating the public education system. She identifies with them, said Lopez: “I always see my student’s parents and I see my mom.” This connection motivates Lopez to build strong parent-teacher relationships. She said she tries to use parents’ expertise because they’re the students’ first teachers in life. “I really try to involve parents are much as possible,” said Lopez. For instance, Lopez understands that some parents have hectic schedules, and she always tries to accommodate them in order to talk about their child’s education.
Another way Lopez involves parents is through painting murals. Lopez enjoys art, and after winning a grant, she was able to start her fourth school mural last summer at Dover Elementary. During her free time, Lopez projects an image (which was designed by a Dover student after the school hosted a contest) onto the wall and parents and students can assist with painting. This mural is of a set of hands holding a book, and six colors burst out of the book: orange, red, yellow, green, blue, sky blue, and purple. Each color represents each school grade level, kindergarten through sixth grade. The mural is still in the process of being finished.
As for the future, Lopez still sees herself working in education, but maybe in different roles such as teaching at an upper-grade level or working in administration—or possibly one day running her own school. But in the meantime, Lopez will continue to wake up at 5 in the morning every weekday, complete lesson planning on the weekends, and teach inside the classroom.
Back in the classroom, as they finish up reading “The Tiny Seed,” Lopez shouts out, “Chi-chi-chi-chicos,” (“boys and girls”) in order to gain her students’ attention.
“Ma-ma-ma-maestra,” reply her 25 second graders in Spanish, using the word for teacher.
The class was going over the seasons and summarizing the short story they had just read. “What do we see in fall?” asked Mrs. Lopez. “Trees,” replied her students in English.
Fernando Santiago, one of her second graders, and said that in this classroom he’s learned new words that he’d never heard before in his life. When asked to share a new word, he said, “Metamorphosis … another way how to say transform, [like] how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.”
Santiago will present Lopez with her teacher of the year award this Thursday, April 30.
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