BY JENNY GOLDSBERRY
In a time when the entire world is concerned about the youngest generation of students, Roy is coming out on top in the realm of education.
One of our very own teachers has not only won a statewide award but will be recognized this month as one of the top five teachers in the country. Alexandra Castellanos Smith of Sand Ridge Junior High isn’t just the best in state but one of the best in the nation.
Alexandra grew up the youngest of six kids. Spanish is her first language, which was spoken by her mother and father at home. She learned English in school with the help of her siblings. Even though she was smart and loved to read, she did not like school at first. Still, her mother and older sisters pushed her to stay at it. Then, in high school, she had a psychology teacher named Mr. Nugent. Previously, he’d taught all her older siblings. She admits she was a tough student, but failure was not an option for Mr. Nugent.
“He basically told me that, if he had to drag me to class every day, he would,” Alexandra remembers.
This teacher even went as far as talking to all of Alexandra’s other teachers so that they would push her in the same way. When it came time to apply for college, she was even less motivated and admits she wasn’t always planning on attending. But Mr. Nugent stepped in again and sat with her as she wrote her entrance essays. He even went as far as to help pay for her applications. Suddenly, she was a first-generation college student studying English literature at Southern Utah University. After that, she pursued a master’s degree in the same subject at Weber State University. She received her latest degree just last year.
Today, Mr. Nugent is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on through Alexandra. After finishing her bachelor’s degree at SUU, she attended a job fair. At the time, she was working in retail but was desperate to use her degree towards something. She had already been certified in Spanish for her retail job, and it would take just one additional test to apply to be licensed to teach Spanish. Then, by happenstance, she met Weber School District Assistant Superintendent Art Hansen at the fair. When she met Mr. Hansen, he mentioned he had a Spanish position open in Roy. Suddenly, Alexandra remembered the great Spanish teachers she’d had growing up. They had told her back then she’d make an excellent teacher. At the time, it motivated her to work as a Spanish/English tutor in high school. Throughout her college experience, she subbed for classes in various grade levels.
“I was already teaching, without realizing it would be my end goal,” Alexandra said.
She jumped at the chance and accepted her first full-time teaching job. It was as an English as a Second Language teacher at Sand Ridge, but she no longer teaches it. Now, four years later, she teaches English 8 and Spanish to all the grades within the junior high and has already received an award for it.
When the position opened, she jumped into heading Latinos in Action (LIA). The Sand Ridge chapter had only been around for a couple of years before she started working at the school. LIA is an extracurricular class geared towards helping Latino students become professionals. There are chapters in 13 states, but it’s only been around for about 20 years. At Sand Ridge, they take class time and after-school time to tutor younger students, knit scarves for the homeless, host food drives, and more. Ninety-eight percentw of kids in Latinos in Action chapters graduate nationwide, where 72% of Latinos g raduate. In the three years since Alexandra took over LIA, there has been a 25% increase in membership at her school.
The last year was a whirlwind of accolades for Alexandra. First, she was awarded by the Utah Education Association. Her husband nominated her as one of the top ten teachers in Utah. Not only did she win, but she was the sole representative from Weber School District. Each year, the UEA recognizes public school teachers whose efforts in the classroom have significantly impacted the lives of their students.
“Thank you, Mrs. Smith, for being such a fierce advocate for students and for representing Weber School District so well on a state level,” the association wrote on Facebook.
From there, the UEA nominated her for the prestigious California Casualty Awards for Teaching Excellence award. Teachers are nominated for their “dedication to the profession, community engagement, professional development, attention to diversity, and advocacy for fellow educators,” according to their website. Nominees are only accepted when they’ve previously won a separate teaching award. They also submitted a personal essay. 2021 awardees represented 45 states. Among them was Alexandra, representing Utah.
Then, the National Education Association whittled it down to a top five. The NEA is a national philanthropic organization that invests in educators’ leadership, shared learning, and collaboration; supports partnerships and initiatives that strengthen public education; and promotes improvements in public education policy and practice. As a result of being chosen as a finalist for the top national award, winners receive $10,000. Alexandra was picked as one of the five Horace Mann Award recipients out of 45 awardees.
The award money is funded by Horace Mann Educators Corporation, a financial services company that has served educators for more than 75 years. “Educators are at the forefront of inspiring the next generation of change-makers,” President and CEO Marita Zuraitis said. “We value the investment all educators make in their students, especially during times of great change. They are the bedrock of their communities, and we are proud to recognize the exceptional contributions and achievements of the recipients of the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence.”
Next, Alexandra is up for the top award. The winner will be revealed at the NEA Foundation Salute to Excellence in Education Gala this month and will receive $25,000. She plans to wear a dress handed down from her sisters to the award ceremony.
For Alexandra to qualify for the top award, she had to submit a virtual lesson. Then, UEA President Heidi Matthews wrote her a recommendation letter. Alexandra decided to submit one of her tried and true lessons about the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures. She picked this lesson because it’s a prime example of project-based learning, which is her specialty. Essentially, she likes to make sure everything they’re learning can be applied to real life. When it comes to learning a foreign language, it’s important that students immediately utilize what they learn. Some of the projects commonly found in her class include full student-created displays for Day of the Dead, a paper city representative of a snapshot daily life in Mesoamerica and planning a dream vacation when the students are learning about Spanish-speaking countries.
Meanwhile, Alexandra plans to continue teaching at Sand Ridge. She loves the supportive environment, parents, and administrators that make her job go more smoothly. If she could make any suggestions to local parents, she would just encourage them to talk to their children’s teachers more. Alexandra loves to talk about her students. In her free time, she enjoys spending quiet time at home with her husband and kitten.
Do you know of any other accomplishments out of Roy? Please reach out so we can recognize our fellow community members in all that they’re doing! Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 801-624-9652.