Esthela Guzman said she tries to mix “fun” into the work her first-grade students do daily at White Elementary School.

And she said her philosophy toward instructing 6-year-olds is “meeting the kids where they are.”

“The kids come at all levels, learning styles (and) abilities,” Guzman said.

“My teaching philosophy is to be able to create a positive learning environment that is conducive to all learning styles where kids feel that they can express themselves and be creative and have fun while learning,” she said.

Guzman was named the Bartow County School System’s 2020 Teacher of the Year during a recent ceremony at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville.

She was among three finalists who also included Allie Ingle, an Exceptional Education teacher at Red Top Middle School; and Dana Hunt, a science teacher at Woodland High School.

Guzman said she was “surprised” but “very grateful” about winning the award.

“It is an absolute honor,’ she said.

“I’m kind of shy so I’m not used to having that type of attention, so it was truly a great moment,” Guzman said. “I’m kind of shocked.”

A selection committee observed the finalists as they worked in their classrooms with their students, according to the school system’s Facebook page.

The committee noted that “engagement, communication, collaboration and fun were evident in Ms. Guzman’s class.”

Members also said they saw “compassion, inclusion and respect for her students and undeniable love and excitement from her students.”

Guzman said the committee also enjoyed the various ways she and her students had fun while learning.

“They thought it was neat how I used different ways to get the kids’ attention,” she said. “Something simple, like when I said, ‘Macaroni and cheese,’ and the kids would say, ‘Everybody freeze’ — just little ways like that.

“They could tell we had fun in the classroom, even if it’s to grab their attention.”

She said she has found first-graders typically need time to transition from kindergarten to first grade and its new set of requirements at the start of the school year.

“It’s a learning process, but when they get there it’s really, really rewarding,” Guzman said.

“I try to provide a lot of visuals, a lot of discussions. I know that they’re really young, but it’s at their level.

“You have to train them but I’m very big on teaching them the growth mindset and having an ‘I can’ attitude, even if it’s tough,” Guzman said.

“It’s a beautiful growth that you see from the beginning of the year to the end of the year,” she said. “You have children come in who aren’t reading and come out reading fluently and that’s awesome.”

Guzman, 27, is in her sixth year as a teacher at White Elementary and seventh year overall as an educator.

The California native moved with her parents to Marietta at a young age and has lived in Bartow County since age 7.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Kennesaw State University and is working on a master’s degree from Augusta University.

Guzman also speaks both English and Spanish fluently and takes the time to help parents for whom ta Latin American dialect may be their first language — even if it is outside of her normal duties.

She said her parents immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. in the mid-1980s and her mother was still learning English while Guzman was growing up.

Her mother often found it “challenging” to understand information sent from her school, Guzman said.

“Growing up, in my household, I had those moments where my parents didn’t always understand or were informed about what was going on,” she said.

“As I grew up, I started becoming aware of that. Now that I’m a teacher, I want to be able to make a difference.

“To me, it’s not going out of my way. I feel like … it’s a gift to be bilingual,” Guzman said.

“I’m more than happy to share any type of information, whether I’m interpreting for a meeting or translating a newsletter, in order to help parents feel like that communication line is open to them as well.

“For me, just being able to interpret is a gift that I feel is very rewarding when I do it,” she said.

Guzman now is eligible to represent the school system in the Georgia Teacher of the Year competition in 2021.

The Bartow Education Foundation hosted the award ceremony which also featured Teacher of the Year award winners from all the schools in the system.

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