Carvajal Early Childhood Education Center teacher Andrea Greimel tests her children on their ability to identify letters.
Carvajal Early Childhood Education Center teacher Andrea Greimel tests her children on their ability to identify letters. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Andrea Greimel sits quietly in the corner of her classroom at Carvajal Early Childhood Education Center holding up a green pencil as groups of 4-year-olds move from painting at an easel to hammering with toys on a wooden bench.

Greimel’s focus is on David, who on this day, is working to identify colors.

“Can you tell me what this color is?” Greimel asks in Spanish.

This individualized focus in the midst of a frenzied classroom is typical as Greimel helps her pre-kindergarten students navigate their dual-language classroom. It is that kind of devotion to students that earned the San Antonio Independent School District educator the honor of being named the 2019 Elementary Teacher of the Year by the regional education service center and a finalist nomination for 2019 Texas Teacher of the Year, an award that will be handed out Sept. 14 by the Texas Association of School Administrators.

Greimel has spent the entirety of her teaching career on San Antonio’s West Side, working to cut through the chaos of what is often a student’s first year in school and create an environment where both English and Spanish speakers thrive.

“There are children growing up in the West Side of San Antonio that speak a combination of English and Spanish, which has grown out of language contact here on the border, [and] it is a natural development,” Greimel said.

The start of the 2018-19 school year marks Greimel’s 10th year at Carvajal, and her 32nd year teaching on San Antonio’s West Side. The dual language pre-kindergarten teacher began her career in Edgewood ISD, spent seven years at Storm Elementary, and started at her current campus in 2009.

Aside from a potential language barrier, many students face challenges in adjusting to the school environment, which often can lead to emotional outbursts that require attention and correction. It’s part of a learning process for both Greimel and her class as her first-time students adjust to new rules and routines in an unfamiliar place. Anything from learning to walk in a line to interpreting sounds and hand signals to even using tongs so they can serve themselves breakfast become a huge acclimation that requires an orientation phase to master.

“We are extremely strict right now because you just have to really put [rules] in place once and for all, and then the rest of the year is going to be such a delight because you can be focused on other things,” Greimel said.

As the school year progresses, Greimel hopes to start building a sense of community among her students. Carvajal was a pilot campus for a social-emotional program that emphasized peer-to-peer interactions, and Greimel adjusted the curriculum to create her own program.

Each day, Greimel pairs up a different set of students and gives them a discussion topic. Throughout the week, the topic will stay the same, but the pairs change.

“Maybe we are talking about our favorite fruit, so it is not going to be the same answer, and you get to know your peers,” Greimel said. “You might get to practice it with some students who are better than you and some students who are about at your level and some students who need a little bit more help than you, so you have a diversity of roles yet the structure stays the same.”

A little more than a week into the school year, Greimel is seeing relationships build between students and with herself and her teacher’s aide.

That bond was put on display last week when Greimel told the class how sad she was when one student decided to play with blocks and climb on top of a table rather than read a story with the rest of the class. Almost immediately, five of Greimel’s 17 seated students jumped up and ran to pat her arm. They then invited the wandering student to join them.

Carvajal Early Childhood Education Center teacher Andrea Greimel shows her students how to properly place the paper on the easel.
Carvajal Early Childhood Education Center teacher Andrea Greimel shows her students how to properly place the paper on the easel. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Kids are responding pretty positively rather than going and copying the behavior, they are sticking with what they know to be right and they are beginning to encourage him and the other couple students to do [the right thing], too,” Greimel said. “I have to do celebrations when students do join in because the kids notice that and I want that peer encouragement. Positive encouragement from peers is probably way more powerful than it is coming from me.”

Before the end of the fall semester, Greimel has plans for a unit focused on family, culture, and traditions that she hopes will engage students’ families in the classroom.  Having taught her entire career in a high-poverty region, Greimel understands family support is crucial to overcoming any challenges her students face.

Every student at Carvajal is considered economically disadvantaged, and more than a quarter qualify as English Language Learners.

By getting parents and guardians into the classroom to tell stories, Greimel believes she is empowering families to take part in their students’ education.

“I can read aloud maybe four times a day on a good day to my kids and they will get a certain amount of motivation … but I know that if mom and dad or older brother and sister or grandma and grandpa really become engaged with stories … that child is going to excel and be very motivated to read and write, which is the foundation for all of academic success,” Greimel said.

In addition, Greimel said she hopes her outreach can help bridge the gap to family members who might have previously experienced prejudice for speaking Spanish. Historically, Greimel said, Mexican-American students have sometimes been misidentified as having special needs because they didn’t communicate in the same way as their peers and there were physical punishments for children who did not understand English.

These experiences often live on as “inherited trauma in the community,” Greimel said, leading older generations to discourage their students from being enrolled in a dual-language program.

“In many cases, in sitting down and talking about that historical context … [families] tend to open up to trying dual language,” Greimel said. “When they see that there are native English speakers wanting to learn Spanish, I see more and more parents choosing dual language for their child and you can see a healing process in the family beginning as they reclaim their ancestral language.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.