Victoria D. de Sanchez Northern Virginia Annual Teacher of the Year Award 2019

Yamalie (Cropped)

Yamalie Rodríguez Figueroa
2019 Yamalie Rodríguez Figueroa, West Potomac High School, Alexandria, Virginia

When she was in the third grade, Yamalie Rodríguez Figueroa faced a challenging problem in the classroom – she only spoke Spanish, while her teacher only spoke English. Yet somehow by the end of the year, they could understand each other.

“To this day, I remember her because she did exactly what every teacher should do with each student they come in contact with, and that is to connect with them,” Rodríguez Figueroa said. “Every student needs to know that one, you like them, and two, you care. Once you have that, you can teach them anything.”

That experience has guided her from Puerto Rico to Alexandria, Va., where she has been teaching Spanish at West Potomac High School since 2010. Rodríguez Figueroa said the school is known for its high population of Hispanic students (35 percent) and high percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch (43 percent). However, it was right where she wanted to be.

“Many thought I was crazy to choose a school with so many Hispanic students,” Rodríguez Figueroa added. “However, I saw it as a great opportunity to work with students that others deem problematic. This is my 10th year at the school and I love waking up every day to go to a job I absolutely love.”

At West Potomac, Rodríguez Figueroa has served as World Language Department Chair, Instructional Council member and Spanish Collaborative Team Leader. In addition to her time connecting with students in the classroom, she has worked to provide professional support for her co-workers, organized school-wide initiatives to build excitement and enthusiasm for foreign languages and developed curricula from the ground up to suit the levels and needs of a variety of students.

“I am personally grateful for Yamalie’s passion outside of the classroom as she is a cornerstone in our school community,” said Tanganyika Millard, principal of West Potomac High School. “She is leading efforts to ensure equity and access to all students by supporting minority student groups targeted to enhance their leadership skills and advocacy.”

On top of teaching vocabulary and grammar lessons, Rodríguez Figueroa is known for selecting meaningful materials to make her classes more engaging. Social issues such as poverty and gang violence are explored by students who are learning about Guatemala and El Salvador, the Cold War is studied in relation to Cuba, the mining industry’s effects on the environment is covered with Chile, etc. One of Rodríguez Figueroa’s favorite school projects is the “social concern wall,” where students depict a social concern that they care deeply about and give a solution to that concern in the painting.

“She introduced projects that helped to enhance the Spanish language curriculum and helped to enhance her students’ love for learning the Spanish language,” said Janice Monroe, assistant principal at West Potomac High School. “Ms. Rodríguez Figueroa is dedicated to creating opportunities for students to speak Spanish in class and to interact with the Spanish language and culture in authentic ways.”

Rodríguez Figueroa credits her success to being truly bilingual, but says she commonly sees Hispanic students who are afraid of speaking Spanish because they either think people will look down on them or it will affect their English language skills. She consistently encourages her students to see bilingualism as an asset, using keynote speakers in her “Spanish for Careers” course as an example. Federal government leaders, first responders, FBI agents and more come to class and talk to Rodríguez Figueroa’s students about how knowing two languages helped them reach higher positions in their careers.

“I was honored to present before Ms. Rodríguez Figueroa’s Spanish classes at West Potomac on a host of issues from immigration, the economy, government, the Dream Act and about how everyday decisions made at the federal government level affect them as contributing members of our society,” said William Ramos, former Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce. “Ms. Rodríguez Figueroa has infused her classrooms with a creative and innovative teaching approach…that generates curiosity, enthusiasm and thought-provoking interaction.”

“Many of her students have decided to go to college and have chosen their path of studies in college due to this class,” said Andrea Veltman, who also teaches Spanish at West Potomac High School. “What is even more gratifying is that both the Hispanic and non-Hispanic students are put in a position to truly learn about one another and their backgrounds, and learn how to support one another in many ways while developing lasting friendships that otherwise may never have occurred outside of this class.”

Rodríguez Figueroa is also passionate about community involvement and including parents in the educational process. She has served as a volunteer, teacher and coordinator for the Parents as Educational Partners program through Fairfax County Public Schools. In those various capacities, Rodríguez Figueroa takes the time to help parents learn English, computer skills and the nature of the U.S. public school system.

“At the end of the program, we would have a graduation for parents and all of them left empowered with the knowledge and skills to be a part of their children’s schooling life,” Rodríguez Figueroa explained. “When parents are involved in their child’s schooling, students are more likely to stay in school and graduate.”

Rodríguez Figueroa’s education includes a master’s degree in secondary education with a concentration in Spanish from George Washington University, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Puerto Rico.

Teaching Philosophy

  • Educators should enhance their students’ potential to become whatever they want to be in life.
  • Students must know they can be successful despite their surroundings or situations.
  • Teach students to learn by doing, i.e. project-based learning, so they can put their education into practice.
  • Students should not only learn intellectual skills while learning a foreign language (reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc.), but they also should learn about the culture and history of various countries, and develop empathy by seeing what happens in the countries they study.
  • Teachers should lead by example and continuously learn new ideas and skills to bring into the classroom.

Accomplishments

  • Chair of World Languages Department at West Potomac High School
  • Founded a “Girls Circle” group to help young women graduate high school on time and gain life skills
  • Organizes Hispanic heritage events throughout the school year
  • Worked for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund in the organization’s Policy, Research and Advocacy Department
  • U.S. Presidential Scholar