Speaking my language: ESL teacher wins district-wide award

Published 12:10 am Saturday, May 27, 2023

SALISBURY — Teaching isn’t for everyone, but for 2023-24 Rowan-Salisbury Schools teacher of the year Marcela Puerta, its like her second language.

Puerta teaches English as a Second Language at Hurley Elementary School. School system administrators formally recognized her as the district’s teacher of the year on Monday during a celebration event at Hurley. 

“I am very proud of being here and being the first Spanish-speaking bilingual (teacher) to get this recognition,” Puerta said. 

Puerta indicated that her role goes beyond simple instruction in the classroom. 

“I like empowering (the students) and giving them all the chances to be themselves and to be successful being who they are,” Puerta said. “Keeping their second language, they can still achieve whatever they want,” adding, “Everybody belongs here.”

That sentiment is especially near and dear to Puerta as an immigrant herself.  

“I am from Colombia,” Puerta said. “I am very proud to be here and sharing my culture and my family and customs. It is good to be here because I can also learn.” 

Several of Puerta’s friends and family from Colombia surprised the award-winning teacher via a Zoom call during the celebration on Monday. 

Hurley Elementary Principal Jennifer Brown praised Puerta’s work and how she champions those who reflect various cultures.

“Puerta is an incredible educator that really believes in her students, and she is supportive of her colleagues and her families,” Brown said. “She really wants to build a connection between the home and the school, so she works diligently to create that connection for us.”

Brown described Puerta as a dreamer. 

“For the last two years, we have really focused on dreaming big,” Brown said. “If the dream doesn’t scare you, then it’s not big enough. (Puerta) is a dreamer. She believes in thinking outside of the box.”

According to Brown, thinking outside the box sometimes requires going outside the classroom. 

“Our ESL program is the first one to take its students on field trips,” Brown said. “(Puerta) writes grants for field trips. She really tries to think about how we can make the best impact for our students through experiences.”

Her work has not gone unnoticed by the families either.

“If you go back over the last few months, the county takes recommendations from families for teacher of the year,” Brown said. “She gets multiple recommendations almost every month.

“Our parents think very highly of her. She has phenomenal connections with our families. She really builds that support, goes to their homes to show that support, and our parents thrive on that.”

Puerta’s colleague Dr. Charles Magwood indicated that he could not think of anyone more deserving of the award.

“She’s an awesome teacher,” Magwood said. “I have been able to work with her both as a leader in the school and even as a music teacher.”

Bridging the gaps of students with different cultures is something that Magwood explained that Puerta does best. 

“She really helped me understand the culture of students and their families,” Magwood said. “This year, we partnered with Knollwood Elementary, working with that school and their students to do a Hispanic celebration, here and there, a full-blown assembly and a parent night, where parents could come out and watch the kids perform.”

He appreciates Puerta’s ability to connect with parents that want to celebrate their children but are sometimes left out because of the language barrier.

“You wouldn’t think about it, but with an award ceremony, some parents come and don’t understand what I am saying,” Magwood said. “So I can give these kids awards, and they may be happy about it, but (the parents) won’t know what I am saying. She will go around and translate and let people know why we are awarding their child.”

According to a press release from the school district, Puerta created take-home kits with games and activities to increase phonological awareness skills. The kits were intended to help her students, but she learned that families are using the kits together to improve the English skills of all family members. 

Puerta also created a Spanish Welcome Center in the front office of Hurley, which allows families to access resources without having to seek out someone to assist. It helps families be self-reliant when they enter the building. 

“I encourage students to explore and maximize their unique abilities, in and out of the classroom, through academic, social-emotional, and extracurricular practices,” Puerta said. 

 Puerta has worked in RSS for the last four years but taught internationally for five additional years. 

“When you empower teachers, they can empower students, families, and the community,” Puerta said. “When teachers feel valued, they want to work hard. I feel that way.”

Puerta was one of 33 teachers representing each school in the district and was one of six finalists.

Along with the title of Teacher of the Year, Puerta received RSS Teacher of the Year signs to announce her new title, a flower arrangement from Big Dog Flowers in China Grove, dinner for two at Texas Roadhouse, a $50 Amazon gift card, and a basket of her favorite things. 

 In addition to Puerta, finalists include:

  • Leah Huggins, Salisbury High School
  • Casey Ratledge, Rockwell Elementary School
  • Deana Honeycutt, Knollwood Elementary School
  • Felicia Young, Knox Middle School
  • Tonya Kepley, Summit Virtual Academy

Puerta will move on to compete for the title of Regional Teacher of the Year. The 2024 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year will be announced in the Spring of 2024 and selected from regional winners across the state.