Sharing a love of learning in Santa Fe

Robin Wiener, a special-education resource teacher at El Dorado Community School, with her companion dog and classroom aide, Hank, was chosen was one of six Teachers Who Inspire for 2019. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Robin Wiener

Special-education resource teacher

El Dorado Community School

Elementary school students read aloud to improve their comprehension of new words and help teachers check their progress. But reading one-on-one with a peer or — worse — in front of an entire class can be intimidating.

In Robin Wiener’s classroom at El Dorado Community School, there is an alternative set of ears for readers that are incapable of judgment. Hank, Wiener’s yellow Labrador retriever, finished his training last summer to serve as a classroom reading aide and started attending her class one day a week during the 2018-19 school year to listen to her students read.

His presence made a difference for Wiener’s special-education students.

“I think that it’s just easier to read to a dog because they don’t listen for your mistakes,” rising sixth grader Ella O’Brien said. “Mrs. Robin and Hank have made me more confident to read in front of my class.”

Wiener, the longest-tenured teacher at El Dorado Community School, who just finished her 21st year as its special-education resource teacher, was surprised last week with a Teachers Who Inspire award from the Partners in Education Foundation, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that helps support local public schools. She was one of six teachers honored with the award, which comes with a $1,500 check, as the school year wrapped up.

Teachers Who Inspire recipients, nominated by fellow teachers or administrators, are presented with awards each year by Partners in Education Executive Director Ruthanne Greeley during schoolwide assemblies.

Wiener’s honor came in the school cafeteria following a field day. Greeley gave the crowd a clue about the recipient during the ceremony, saying she had helped mentor a new four-legged teacher. Everyone’s eyes turned to a corner where “Mrs. Robin” was smiling widely with disbelief.

In a classroom lined with bookshelves, Wiener helps students navigate roadblocks to literacy. Even after more than three decades of teaching, she still experiments with new strategies to help her students succeed. That’s why she decided last year to put Hank through an obedience class and the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen course — a prerequisite for many therapy dog programs — so she could start bringing him to school every Friday.

“I’m not really sure how he passed,” she said. “It was a lot of work.”

But it was worth the effort: “Having a dog in class is a nonthreatening way of enticing kids to take risks they wouldn’t if they thought somebody was listening,” Wiener said.

Most of her students in grades K-5 have attention deficit disorder or learning disorders such as dyslexia. Many are learning English as a second language. Every day, she teaches two to four students at a time in 35- to 45-minute sessions.

She likes to follow her students’ progress through middle school and high school, where they might tackle honors and Advanced Placement classes. Many of them go on to graduate from college.

“All these kids have the ability to read, but something is in the way,” Wiener said. “The fascinating part is that I try something to get it out of the way, and if it doesn’t work, the beauty of my job is that I get to try something else.”

She found her passion for special education as a teenage babysitter, she said, spending time reading with a family friend who had ADD and learning disabilities.

Before coming to Santa Fe, Wiener taught in Washington, D.C., and Montana. In Santa Fe, she has continued her mission of helping elementary students overcome early hurdles.

“The kids who I work with, they’re struggling with things that everyone is going to struggle with at some point,” Wiener said. “There’s something that’s not going to come easy to them, but when we get it, it’s so exciting.”

From her nomination letters:

“Hearing from former students who are now in college, those early years with Robin, where they focused on remediation, intervention and compensatory strategies, propelled them to greater success in high school and beyond.”

“Having a child diagnosed with a learning disability can be difficult and scary for parents to hear, but Robin puts them at ease. The hope she shares with parents is real. She is the epitome of the teacher who inspires.”

Sharing a love of learning in Santa Fe

Donna Scheer, director of dance of Santa Fe High School, has a passion for introducing dancers at all levels to the art form. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

Donna Scheer

Director of dance

Santa Fe High School

In a career dedicated to dance, Donna Scheer has coached aspiring professionals who eventually made it to Broadway. At university theater departments and dance institutes, she has taught hundreds of committed performers to tap, twirl and tango.

As the director of dance at Santa Fe High School for the past eight years, however, Scheer doesn’t focus on the aspirations of her students. She teaches to share her passion for movement.

“For me, it’s never been about making dancers,” said Scheer, honored this spring as one of the Partners in Education Foundation’s six local Teachers Who Inspire. “It’s been about exposing students to an art form, instructing and exposing them to something that is another way of communicating.”

In her first year at Santa Fe High, Scheer taught two classes; this year, her program has grown to seven and includes three levels of dance and a choreography course.

Every year, she inspires students who enrolled in dance just as an elective class to fill their schedule to return the following year.

“We are always overfull,” she said. “Every fall [the administration] sort of hates me because I try to tell them, ‘All these kids need to get in my class.’ They say, ‘That’s great, but you can’t take anymore. It’s only a 25-person class.’ “

From her nomination letters:

“Demanding professional-level discipline, regardless of skill level, but infusing lessons with a level of fun and artistic creativity, Mrs. Scheer is one of the cornerstones of Santa Fe High School. She is the rare combination of exceptional artist and exceptional instructor.”

Sharing a love of learning in Santa Fe

Denise Hinson, a creative writing teacher at New Mexico School for the Arts, will lead a new creative writing and literature program at the school in the fall. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Denise Hinson

Creative writing and literature teacher

New Mexico School for the Arts

Denise Hinson spent over a decade teaching high school seniors and college students before starting her job at New Mexico School for the Arts, where she was presented with two new classroom dynamics — art students and freshmen.

“I didn’t know I liked freshmen,” said Hinson, who has taught core language arts skills to fine arts and performing arts students at the state-chartered school. “The seniors about to graduate are the first freshmen I ever taught.”

She’s enjoyed helping students connect academics with the arts, said Hinson, who recently was honored as one the 2019 Teachers Who Inspire — for instance, by asking students to supplement class projects with sculptures, paintings or songs.

In the fall, Hinson’s role at the school will expand as it welcomes 20 freshmen enrolled in a new creative writing and literature program.

Hinson almost left the arts school — again — before that program was developed.

She had taught for two years at New Mexico School for the Arts before moving to Houston to start a business. Then Hurricane Harvey sent her back to Santa Fe for the 2018-19 school year — and back to the arts school.

“She promised us when we were freshmen that she would be at our graduation. Obviously, last year we were worried she wasn’t going to make it,” senior Nicole Romero said. “She loved us so much she just had to come back.”

From her nomination letters:

“Denise frequently travels to far-flung hamlets in New Mexico to bring creative writing sessions to small schools. When she is invited to schools that don’t have many resources, she brings lots of examples of poetry and short stories. She works with students on their creative writing and then organizes a culminating public reading for the community. For many students, this is the first time they have been able to read in public.”

Sharing a love of learning in Santa Fe

Vicki Scanlon, a first grade teacher at Nava Elementary School for 18 years, is considered invaluable by colleagues when it comes to creating a sense of community at the school. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Vicki Scanlon

First grade teacher

Nava Elementary School

Teaching is in Vicki Scanlon’s DNA. As she grew up in Santa Fe, her mother taught in Pojoaque and her father taught in local Catholic schools.

“I used to go help my mom set up her classroom when I was younger,” Scanlon said. “I think is was always pretty clear that I was going to be a teacher.”

Scanlon recently finished her 20th year at Nava Elementary School, 18 teaching first grade. For principals and fellow teachers, her consistency is invaluable to creating a school community. And, colleagues say, she does not shy away from welcoming new students.

“This is my first year here,” Principal Marc DuCharme said. “If it wasn’t for Vicki, I would not have understood the culture here at Nava.

“This year, we kept on getting new kids that moved into our zone,” he added, “and Vicki’s class got bigger and bigger. A lot of teachers might complain, but she just smiles and says ‘all right, I got another one.’ ”

In the middle of an end-of-year talent show earlier this month, Partners in Education surprised Scanlon with her Teachers Who Inspire award. She took the moment to ensure everyone she knows she is in the right profession.

“Obviously, I love this school,” Scanlon told Nava students. “I can’t imagine my life anywhere else. And I plan to be here as long as I can.”

From her nomination letters:

“When I talked with my sixth graders about nominating Vicki, the students all agreed that she totally deserves it.”

“I believe that Vicki not only inspires kids to learn and want to come to school, but leaves them with lasting impressions of what they learned.”

Sharing a love of learning in Santa Fe

Erem Birkan, an architect-turned-high school teacher at the Academy at Larragaoite, aims to reach beyond the textbook to bring lessons alive, whether the subject is math, coding, finance, technology or digital art. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

Erem Birkan

Math, science, and art teacher

Academy at Larragoite

Erem Birkan spends his day multitasking — teaching mathematics standards as well as coding, finance, technology and digital art. No matter the course title, the architect-turned-high school teacher tries to focus on lessons beyond the textbook.

“In all of my classes, I want my students to learn about time management and goal setting and other really important life skills,” said Birkan, who recently received a Teachers Who Inspire Award. “I want them to learn math and science but also be ready to complete high school and continue to succeed.”

For the past nine years, Birkan has taught at the Academy at Larragoite, an alternative public high school with a handful of teachers for its 30 to 40 students. The academy is designed to assist students who experience challenges in the traditional high school environment.

Birkan, who also owns and operates an architecture firm, takes advantage of the small class sizes and the multiple disciplines he teaches to design projects that excite his students — such as a 3D printer or a robotics team.

“These kids are all very able but have life circumstances that have made attendance hard,” Birkan said.

“I enjoy that we are different from other schools in that all of us teach different subjects,” he added. “I might have five kids in a class, but I know them and I know how they learn.”

From his nomination letters:

“Mr. Birkan inspires students by connecting with them at their individual levels and learning styles. He is committed to building relationships with students so that they believe in themselves. Most of the students he works with really hate math when they start his class. By the end year, students seem to really enjoy math and are open to inter-related classes and activities that incorporate math.”

Sharing a love of learning in Santa Fe

Juliette ‘Jules’ Chavez, a third grade teacher at Nina Otero Community School, is a Santa Fe native who returned to her hometown in 2018-19 to inspire her classroom. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

Juliette ‘Jules’ Chavez

Third grade teacher

Nina Otero Community School

On the second-to-last school day at Nina Otero, the eyes of Juliette Chavez’s third graders were glued to a projector screen to see the finished product. The class’s final writing unit was centered on researching and writing a news story.

Chavez took the project a step further by asking her students to rehearse and film their reports.

In oversized blazers and uneven ties, with two hands on the microphone, the 8- and 9-year-olds delivered television news reports in English and Spanish, complete with street interviews, weather reports and mock candy commercials.

“I like to let them fill me in on what they have learned in their own ways,” Chavez said. “This sort of project hits a lot of different learning styles. It’s a better way to show me what they’ve learned compared to assessments.”

Chavez, one of the 2019 Teachers Who Inspire, grew up in Santa Fe and graduated from St. Michael’s High School and the University of New Mexico before working for Nike for 6½ years.

After one year of teaching kindergarten in Colorado last year, she returned home in time for the start of the 2018-19 school year to inspire students in Santa Fe.

“I was nervous about saying what I wrote down in front of the camera,” student Dereon Lopez said. “Mrs. Jules got me to think that I don’t care what anybody thinks, I’m just going to do it.”

From her nomination letters:

“Jules is intentional about teaching her students interpersonal skills that will benefit them for years to come. There is a daily classroom greeter who will approach all visitors, introduce themselves and welcome the visitor to class. These small gestures give great insight into the intention and care Jules brings to her role in the class.”