Spotlight

Thomas Prieto

BS '02, Cred. '04, MA '05

Thomas Prieto helping one of his students

Graphic Designer Turns to Teaching

By Donna Justice, Spring 2007

How does someone trained in graphic design become one of the most talented new teachers around? For Thomas Prieto, it began with an epiphany.

How does someone trained in graphic design become one of the most talented new teachers around? For Thomas Prieto, it began with an epiphany.

“I was observing my sister-in-law teach first grade in Fresno, and I noticed how much a new student, named Jose, was struggling,” said Prieto. “He had very limited English skills. I thought, ‘What am I doing sitting behind a desk clicking a mouse when I could be making a difference?’”

I think back to what I learned in the program, especially on how to reflect on my own practice. I feel empowered to make change; I can voice my opinion confidently because I got the tools I need to be an effective teacher and colleague.”

Prieto (’02 BS, ’04 credential, ’05 MA) knows what it’s like to struggle with English. He entered kindergarten as a Spanish speaker and had to repeat his first year of school because of his inability to master English.

In just his second year of teaching, Prieto is hearing from his colleagues that his skills in the classroom exceed what might be expected of a novice teacher.

Prieto chalks this up to several factors, including working with a wonderful group of teachers at Anderson—many of whom graduated from the School of Education’s credential program—and being “extremely prepared” by his studies and training at the School.

“I think back to what I learned in the program, especially on how to reflect on my own practice,” said Prieto. “I feel empowered to make change; I can voice my opinion confidently because I got the tools I need to be an effective teacher and colleague.”

Prieto respects his colleagues and values his education, but his real passion is reserved for his first grade students. Every day begins with a handshake and a check in.

“I make sure that every day starts with a quick personal conversation with each student,” said Prieto. “I need to know how they are feeling and let them know that I care. If I don’t know a child is starting the day with a real problem, we could go a whole day with no learning.”

And the challenges some of his students face are significant: all of the children receive free or reduced lunch, and 14 out of the 18 are native Spanish speakers. But what many may perceive as insurmountable obstacles, Prieto sees as opportunities to build a community of learners while instilling confidence in each student.

“My job is to make sure my students meet all the requirements, but at the same time I allow them to be in charge of their learning,” said Prieto. “I work on finding ways to let them make choices and to express their learning in a variety of ways.”

For instance, during instruction, Prieto frequently asks questions and tells the children, “now talk to your neighbor about that.” They are valued for their opinions and puzzle through new concepts together.

Native language—whether it’s English or Spanish—is honored and celebrated. “I often read bilingual books to the kids. Actually, my native English speakers are as motivated to learn Spanish as the Spanish speakers are to learn English,” said Prieto.

Prieto believes that children are capable of much more than most adults expect, but he laments that much of the focus on learning stops at just the facts students need to pass standardized tests. Standardized curriculum is often too generic and isn’t structured to encourage independent thinking, he believes.

“Kids can do amazing things, if we do a good job of helping them understand concepts and if we model well for them,” said Prieto. “My greatest concern in the current environment of testing is that students will become merely data, not people anymore.”

As each day winds down, and the kids wave goodbye for the day, it is clear this is not a danger for the students in Mr. Prieto’s classroom, a safe and happy place where every kid is a “superstar.”

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