Sonia Galaviz, an award-winning fifth-grade teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Boise, doesn’t think for a moment she is the only teacher in her students’ lives.
From the moment she learns who is coming to her class each year, Galaviz is working with students and their families to help make the experience in her classroom one of the best they can have.
Her work has earned her recognition from her peers, statewide and nationally, as well as from Idaho businesses determined to improve science, technology, engineering and math education in Idaho.
Sonia Galaviz teaches in a school where 18 languages are spoken and more than 80 percent of the students are in low-income families.
What’s her secret? She is guided by a couple of overarching principles: Work to make education relevant to the students. And if you are a parent, have the audacity to ask the school what can be done to make their child’s education better.
Here’s what she told the Statesman she does and how she works to keep families closely involved. (Lightly edited for clarity.)
1. Build a connection between educators and families
For me, the connection with families begins before the first day of school, and I think that is something that sets my practice apart. I do home visits to each and every (student) before day one. I don’t want the first day to be the first time that my students see me.
So that’s when families and I sit down as a collaborative effort. We talk about what it is that we want to accomplish this year. What are your goals for your student?
Bragging and goal-setting The first question I always ask when I do home visits is, “Tell me what’s awesome about your kid.” And I get to hear them brag about their student. And for a few moments, I get to see their child the way they see their child.
I start to see what are some of the strengths, what are their creative outlets, what are they interested in, what have they struggled with in school.
Frank talk Another thing we talk about: What are your goals for your child this year? And I talk about my expectations and goals for the classroom. And then (we) build off those throughout the school year. So once we start the year, I can hit the ground running.
2. Teachers aren’t the only teachers
I think teachers are often seen as all-knowing — the mystical force in the school building. We really are here to provide the best education possible. To remove the family would be to dismiss all of the education and knowledge and fundamentals that a family brings.
It’s a cooperative effort. No one side should be carrying the entire weight of the education of the child.
Sonia Galaviz, on the role of parents and teachers
The world is your classroom The world is full of context. So when you are in familiar spaces with the child — whether it is the living room or the kitchen table or you are out walking in a park or you are at the Discovery Center — you are using those contexts to develop language, to really test out maybe the science presence in that space, and really use it to learn what the child is doing at school and how they can make connections to the world around them.
What’s an example? With any age child, say you are in the park all day. (Ask questions such as:) Why do the leaves change? I wonder why they fall? What time of year does this happen? What does that have to do with the climate? Does this happen to all trees? It’s this opportunity to create more questions than answers.
Have the student come up with some of those questions themselves. Something as simple as that.
3. What to do when a student isn’t doing well
The first thing I would encourage parents to do is get in contact with the teacher. We may have tutor groups going on or homework help at lunch time. The computer lab is open early in the morning before school starts. (Do) quick checks for understanding with the teacher. I don’t think any parent wants to learn at a parent-teacher conference that there has been an issue for the first quarter of school.
28 Number of students in Sonia Galaviz’s fifth-grade class
Find a connection to learning A student who knows every word in and out of a “Simpsons” episode but struggles multiplying, what that child is missing is the real-word connection and the relevancy of what they are doing. If they just can’t seem to wrap their head around mathematics in isolation, what families can do with the teacher is build a context for where do we see this stuff in real life. (If) they are looking are at photosynthesis, changing that conversation to how plants feed off of light through a walk in the park. Where would they see that happening? Where would we see that when we go fishing with grandpa on the weekend? What does a food chain actually look like here in Idaho? Bring the context home for the child.
4. There is a place for families, even in homework
Homework in my classroom is an integrated approach. So if I am doing a unit on westward expansion, the student will go home and say, “We talked about this thing called Manifest Destiny. What do you think about that?” There is never a right or wrong answer. I’m not quizzing the family. I am asking what their opinion is. Then students bring that context back. And we go from there. Always keeping the family engaged in what we are doing.
5. Family stress affects schoolwork. Protect your child the best you can
If there is stress in the home on how to pay the rent, a child’s algebra homework doesn’t mean two cents. To say that it is completely divorced from the education experience of the child, I would disagree. When there is stress and pressure at home, the kiddo feels it.
Meet Sonia Galaviz
Classroom: Fifth grade at Garfield Elementary in Boise
Years in the profession: 14
Years at Garfield: 5
▪ One of two winners of the 2016 Industry’s Excellent Educators Dedicated to STEM award for connecting science, technology, engineering and math education advocates and Idaho business with students, 2016
▪ Idaho Education Association Marsha Nakamura Teaching Excellence Award, 2016
▪ NEA Foundation Awards for Teaching Excellence, 2017.
One of five nationally to receive the award, which includes $10,000 in prize money. She intends to put that toward paying for her doctorate.