Hearing “Mrs. Chavez, we miss you!” from her 4th grade class encouraged Rhiannon Chavez to set up a weekly summer Zoom call to check in with her students. Some have shared their Lego creations, while others just talk about their day. One asked “Can we do this every day?” and she thought, “Wait, this is my summer vacation, too.”
Summer had been a welcome break for teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Like her colleagues, Chavez has had to adjust to online teaching methods during the pandemic, and her role at Gardena’s 186th Street Elementary School as teacher of the English Learning Development (ELD) class presented unique challenges.
Fortunately, the California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) alumna has a deep love of teaching and prides herself in creating holistic learning communities for her diverse students and their parents. This made the transition to online teaching much easier for Chavez, who achieved a nearly 100 percent student attendance rate on Zoom in the spring.
Chavez’s zeal and resourcefulness as a teacher has not gone unnoticed. This summer, Chavez learned that she was named a LAUSD 2020 Teacher of the Year. “I cried when they called me, and the faces of my students began running through my head,” she says. “I’m so honored, and the love of my kids just makes this greater. Teaching is challenging. There’s not a single day that is easy, but it’s a lot more rewarding when you have relationships with your kids and their families.”
Respect for different cultures is a primary focus for Chavez, and what helps guide much of her lesson planning. “My classroom is the most beautiful display of language and culture. I’ve had students from Egypt who speak Arabic, from Brazil who speak Portuguese, and even one from Cameroon who speaks French. It is amazing what these kids bring to the classroom,” she says.
Chavez calls her teaching style loud and dramatic. “That’s my personality, and my kids love it. We sing, we dance, we even do rap songs to math problems. I ask the kids to throw in some lyrics, then say ‘Get up. Let’s do our rap,’” she says. “It’s always fun, even while teaching online, where I still encourage them to share their ideas – because usually their ideas are better than mine.”
CSUDH Professor of Teacher Education Jeff Sapp is elated that Chavez is being honored for her work.
“I am so thrilled that Rhiannon will get the attention and celebration she deserves! She was an absolute joy to have in my classes during her credential program and I have followed her career closely,” Sapp says. “It’s just a joy to see your students be acknowledged like this, and this feels even more critical now with the pandemic. Teachers really need to be lifted up as we face the realities of COVID-19 and classrooms.”
Chavez has now been teaching the ELD class at 186th Street Elementary School for six years. She began her career in education as a substitute at Dana Middle School in San Pedro, where for nine years she was called in to work nearly every day. After getting married and having a child of her own, she decided she would rather teach younger kids and applied for CSUDH’s credential program. She completed the program and earned her credential in spring 2014.
The university helped Chavez get a student teaching position at 186th Street Elementary School. She began as a kindergarten teacher for eight weeks, before moving on to her master teacher Claudia Garcia’s 4th grade class.
“My master teacher had to take some time off, and since I had been a sub already, I kind of knew the ropes,” explains Chavez. She made a good impression, and when a position opened, Garcia recommended her to the school’s former principal, fellow CSUDH alumna Marcia Reed, who earned her teaching credential at CSUDH in 2003.
Reed has retired as principal but is still an educator. She has returned to CSUDH, teaching Culturally Responsive Teaching and Classroom Management as an adjunct professor, and also serves as the multiple subject clinical coordinator.
“Ms. Chavez is so deserving of this prestigious award because she builds relationships with excellence and love,” Reed shares. “Her students soar academically, artistically, and peacefully because she upholds high expectations, promotes active learning experiences, and builds relationships, relationships, relationships! Her students love her and they know she loves them. We are so proud of our Wise Owl Teaching Star!”
Chavez credits her CSUDH professors for many of the core principles she draws from while teaching, and those in the College of Education for actively helping her relaunch her career.
“Lilia Sarmiento (associate professor of teacher education) and Professor Sapp were incredible,” she says. “We weren’t just a student ID, or in a classroom to fill space. They really took the time to know us and asked about our thoughts and experiences. I learned so much about how to build relationships from them, because they built relationships with me. I can’t thank them enough.”