By Meagan Clements
Cory Alfaro, an educator at Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos, may have been teaching for 23 years but when it comes to engaging students online, it’s her first year.
Although it’s been filled with trials and triumphs, Alfaro says her amazing team, complete with creative minds and supportive families, inspire her each day.
“We’re learning together, and the kids are really open to that. We as teachers have to give ourselves some grace,” Alfaro said. “The students are giving us lots of grace, the parents are giving us lots of grace. We are working so hard to give the kids the best education we can.”
Awarded Teacher of the Year for Los Alamitos Unified School District, Alfaro is on a mission to motivate students despite the devastating Coronavirus pandemic.
Her motto, “treat others as you would like to be treated,” ignites a passion within students, as she focuses on important text-to-text, text-to-self and text-to-world connections in the classroom and online.
“We can use a lot of what we know in terms of confidence building, creating safe spaces for kids online and setting high expectations for how we expect [them] to treat each other,” Alfaro said.
The transition from childhood to thinking and behaving as adults is one factor contributing to the social and emotional needs Alfaro’s students face. She is honored to be a part of this change, guiding them towards awareness and understanding of their thoughts and feelings.
“I always wanted to do something with middle school because I feel like it’s such a difficult time and I want to provide a place where kids can learn and also process what they’re going through,” Alfaro said.
Whether online or in the classroom, Alfaro mentors a mix of critical thinkers and faces that are full of life. She encourages students to ask important questions, among them, “what is this text saying about the world?”
“So many of these kids are just full of life and have so many amazing ideas,” Alfaro said. “They are doing so much at such a young age. It’s inspiring.” Additionally, Alfaro is attuned to the needs of each student. She puts herself in their shoes, empathizing with them and the challenges they face.
“I remember being a middle schooler and I just remember what a hard time in life that was,” Alfaro recalled.
Alfaro encourages discussions on a variety of topics, noting that it’s not about agreeing with one another but about respecting one another. She sees students for who they are on the inside, not necessarily for an image they may project on the outside.
“They feel awkward and they don’t always understand exactly what’s going on in their own lives, [especially] with all of their friends,” Alfaro said.
Alfaro teaches more than English language arts and Spanish. She teaches the importance of forgiveness, allowing students to start with a clean slate if they’ve made a mistake or said something unkind.
“I think we try with the literature that we teach to give kids spaces to connect the pieces with their own life and realize that just because they make a mistake doesn’t mean that they can’t change,” Alfaro said.
Alfaro’s teachings exceed what is printed in a textbook. She shows with her actions the importance of kindness, compassion and courage in the classroom.
“Education has always been more than just the content that we teach,” Alfaro said. “It is about mental health and wellness and learning how to be a kind, active member of society.”
Dr. Andrew Pulver, Los Alamitos Unified School District Superintendent, agreed. During a board meeting this month, Pulver painted a picture of Alfaro’s humility and grace, noting that she often feels unworthy of receiving generous accolades.
An open-minded attitude affords opportunities for growth while teaching during a pandemic.
“She stands and really relies on the support and legacy of excellence of her colleagues,” Pulver said.
Pulver admits Alfaro’s commitment to serve others creates an energy-abundant classroom and online environment. Her down-to-earth demeanor invites students to share their experiences with the world around them.
“Sometimes we talk about this concept of running to students who need us most and [Alfaro] represents that,” Pulver said.
Erin Kominsky, principal of Oak Middle School also spoke at the board meeting, shedding light on Alfaro’s ability to engage even the most reluctant learners. Creating a safe space for students to grow alongside each other is one reason Alfaro possesses qualities symbolic of her award, Teacher of the Year.
“[Her] English classes are always abuzz with chatter and joyful noise,” Kominsky said.
Alfaro finds fulfillment in connecting what is taught to students’ experiences offline and outside the classroom. She learns as much from them as they do from her.
“I get a lot from the students as well and from the families that send their kids here,” Alfaro said.
Despite the difficult nature of the pandemic, Alfaro strives to make students feel loved. When they are excited to show up — be it online or in the classroom — she knows it’s going to be a great day.
“I try to make sure that they feel positive and happy,” Alfaro said.
Currently, students at Oak Middle School are given the choice to participate in a hybrid model or continue their classes online.
“It’s amazing that the district has been able to reopen,” Alfaro said.
Alfaro recognizes learning strategies that work best in person, comparing them with those that are most effective online. Regardless of the environment, she says finding the right balance plays an integral part in successfully meeting their academic needs.
“We need to admit that the work is hard, but we need to have high standards,” Alfaro said.
The district-wide slogan, “better together,” reminds Alfaro that every failure is an opportunity for personal and professional growth as she enhances the learning experience for students in grades 6-8.
“We have to identify what’s hard so we can make it better,” Alfaro said.
Learning alongside her students keeps Alfaro grounded, as she strives to build a rapport with them, connecting academic concepts to their own life story.
“Many kids have felt isolated, depressed or detached,” Alfaro said. “We’re trying to reconnect with these students through their academics but also through personal connections and relationships.”
Alfaro is grateful for the values instilled in her on behalf of the faculty and staff at Oak Middle School — it’s best to try and fail than never to have tried at all.
“We can’t get down on ourselves or focus on what didn’t work,” Alfaro said.
The power of positive thinking helps Alfaro push through a tough yet rewarding day as she centers herself, focusing on individual tasks at hand. She acknowledges the importance of sharing ideas with others as well as admitting, “this didn’t work. Can you help me?”
“We have to keep a positive attitude,” Alfaro said.
Alfaro commended the school for paying attention to detail as well as remembering the importance of professional development. Watch Oak Teach is an open-door policy that invites teachers to pop into neighboring classrooms and observe one another.
“Nobody has all the answers,” Alfaro said. “If you think you have all the answers, that’s probably when you stop growing as a teacher.”
Alfaro manages stress by walking every day and doing Pilates. She enjoys the outdoors, skiing in the mountains and playing with her dogs — she has two, nine-year-old terrier mixes, Ginger and Ruben. She values time spent with her family, including her daughters who attend Los Alamitos High School. Ava is a freshman and Vivianna is a senior.
Alfaro, who has been teaching for 23 years, may be a first-year teacher when it comes to engaging students online. However, the challenges she’s faced haven’t held her back. Whether students are learning in the classroom or on the computer, the values she instills within them remain the same.
Kindness still counts, ideas are still respected and for Cory Alfaro, teaching continues to give her purpose and joy.