As remarkable as it is to be recognized at the state level as an Exemplary English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, it's even more impressive to receive that honor two years in a row, but that's exactly what Dalton High School's Virginia Luna has done.
"It was surprising, both times, not something I was really expecting," said Luna, who has been an ESOL teacher at Dalton High for six years. "ESOL is such a rewarding job, because you get to see so much growth in kids, and I love my kids."
Stephanie Hungerpiller, Dalton High School's principal, said she's "so proud of Virginia for receiving this recognition for the past two years," and she called her "a true example of the Dalton Difference."
The Georgia superintendent of schools, Richard Woods, recognizes educators nominated by their schools for outstanding work with ESOL students with the title of Exemplary ESOL teacher, and Luna can empathize with her English learners, because she was once one.
Luna had to learn English when she came to America at age 9, and because her background is similar to so many of her students it "helps me relate to them," she said. "They really do want to be here, and they want to do their best."
Luna, who has three children — Marisol, 7, Sebastian, 5, and Santiago, 2 — with her husband, Aldo Luna, owes much of her English progress to her parents, particularly her father, who explained the value of English, she said. "They really pushed us."
"You have to immerse yourself in it, the language and the culture, and the more you practice it, the better you'll get," she said. In her early years with English, "I felt like I was the worst."
Luna and her family first settled in Anaheim, California, where they had relatives, in 2001, but only remained there a couple of months, she said. Because they not only lived in a Mexican neighborhood, but one in which many of the residents were from their same area of Mexico, "it was like our hometown away from our hometown."
Coming to Dalton, where they also had family members, "was a culture shock," she said. On her initial day of school, her first class was mostly white students, with only a few Latinos, and "it was very different."
She was an ESOL student, but the program was "nothing compared to what it is now," she said. "There weren't many Spanish-speaking teachers, and there wasn't enough training for them, but now states — especially Georgia — do a very good job training (these) teachers so they have the tools to help more kids."
As a student at Dalton State College, Luna was focused on early childhood education, but she ultimately realized ESOL was her destiny.
"I loved it," she said. Plus, "getting the help I got (as a child in ESOL), I wanted to give back."
For Luna and her fellow ESOL instructors, relationships with students are foundational for all learning. As Steve Bartoo, who was Dalton High's principal for seven years before retiring earlier this summer, was fond of saying, "There are only two things you can control as a public educator: the relationships you have with students, and the work you ask them to do in your classroom."
Bartoo's motto "is very true," Luna said. "The relationships help us connect, and when you know your kids, you understand where their needs are, so you don't waste time trying to explain what they already know."
At Dalton High, ESOL teachers like Luna assist ESOL students with language and content in various classes, from English to social studies, she said. ESOL students also have specific ESOL classes where the focus is concentrated on learning the language.
"Last year, we had 132 ESOL students," and more than 20 were able to exit by passing their access exam, she said. "We had a very, very good year."
English classes are typically the toughest for ESOL students, because "writing in Spanish is very different than writing in English," she said. "The grammar rules are different."
American history courses can also prove difficult, she said. American students gain a base of U.S. history beginning in elementary school and build on that throughout their academic careers, but students from other nations lack that prior knowledge.
Luna "does an excellent job building relationships with her students, looking at their individual needs, and identifying strategies to use to support her EL (English language) students in their academic classes," Hungerpiller said. "She works with them on language acquisition, reading comprehension, academic vocabulary and other skills that help students be successful in all content areas."
With ESOL students, it's paramount to "just give them a chance, (because) they are eager to try and learn," Luna said. "Overall, people misjudge so much (based on) first impressions, but keep trying at it, because when they see you take an interest in something they like, they'll open up."