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Teacher of the Year keeps her roots top of mind


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Every time West Virginia Teacher of the Year Andrea Santosteaches a lesson or organizes an event at Logan High School, her alma mater, she has an ulterior motive.

West Virginia Teacher of the Year Andrea Santos.
(Submitted photo)

“It’s been a quest of mine to excavate my students’ voices,” she said. “We are in such an economic decline, especially here in the coalfields. A lot of my students have that poverty mindset.

“I often say, ‘Your great-grandmother or great-grandfather came here with so much more, and you are willing to leave it on the side of the road. Pick up that determination!’”

Santos grew up in Logan County surrounded by diversity and pride, and she knows firsthand those traits translate to strengths. She was raised in a Spanish-speaking household by her grandparents.

“I grew up hearing a lot of stories,” Santos said. “One section of the coal camp would be home to Italians, another, Slovakians. Each nationality had its own section in the camps. I can remember going to church and people in my pew speaking Spanish; the next aisle might have people speaking Hungarian and then on up, maybe Italian — and this was in a Pentecostal church.”

Santos’ family migrated to West Virginia for the coalfields.

“My grandparents were from northern Mexico and came to West Virginia from Texas,” she said. “They came here for the same reason as all those other people — to have a better life. Some students have exotic last names, but they don’t know anything about their culture. The language has died, and the stories have lost their breath.”

Santos is working on 25 years in the classroom, and says she still loves it. She holds a bachelor’s degree in education from West Virginia State University and a multi-subject education degree for foreign languages from Lee University in Tennessee. She returned to help her grandmother and found a teaching position in Boone County.

“I had no intention of returning to the state,” she said. “As I got older, I thought, this is a nice place. There’s a certain security in these mountains and valleys where we live. I decided I would teach Spanish, try to dispel stereotypes and help students find a voice.”

Santos is the chair of Logan High’s fine arts department and a Spanish teacher. She uses her creativity to encourage and empower her students.

“Andrea does what the individual students need and respond to the best,” said Logan High Principal Kelly Stanley. “Her lessons are never one-size-fits-all; she is innovative and makes that personal connection with her students. She doesn’t just motivate them; she inspires them to seek knowledge outside the classroom. She is amazing.”

Santos says she began her teaching career long before she went to college. As a child, she helped her grandparents navigate their English-speaking environment.

“I think I’ve always been a teacher,” she said. “Teaching is a mission, and I do it purposefully.”

Stanley agrees Santos’ teaching abilities are grounded in her heart, as well as in her head.

“I could not imagine her doing anything else,” she said. “She has such a way of getting the attention of the students. She helps them find a personal reason for learning. She is firm, fair and consistent, but she also displays kindness, caring and compassion.”

Santos involves the community in her teaching.

“Sometimes we have 300-500 people attending and enjoying international cuisine,” she said. “We have a lot of celebrations that are open to the public. Art classes will do the centerpieces; we always open with the flag corps and band. My students will do spoken word poetry and the artwork for the walls.”

For National Poetry Month, Santos’ classroom becomes a jazz café, and she and her students explore the work of Latino poets and create and read their own poetry.

“When they write, I write,” she said. “When they read, I read. I would never ask them to expose themselves if I won’t do it. I want them to be empowered by their words.”

Santos is involved in local fine arts, is the music director at her church and works in the educational community. She also compiled a unity and diversity handbook for the county.

“I was teaching a multicultural workshop for the county, and I had administrators say you can’t teach acceptance, only tolerance,” she said. “I explained that tolerance will only get us so far. I started with the handbook and with lessons and workshops on teaching acceptance and broadening the scope of diversity. Now, I’m bringing it to the state level.”

She also is a member of Teach Like Me, an organization dedicated to the nobility of the teaching profession and Protect Public Ed, an organization designed to teach students that their teachers also care about their safety.

A lifelong learner, leader and teaching dynamo, Santos has embraced the opportunities Teacher of the Year has afforded her. Walden University offered Santos the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree free of charge.

“Being state teacher of the year is the gift that keeps on giving,” she said. “Having traveled the country this year, I think I’ve met someone from just about everywhere. I’ve attended an international space camp for educators and a national slam poetry camp.”

Santos works to involve other professionals at her school in a cross-teaching curriculum. And she would like to put pen to paper to give other teachers that framework.

“I would like to publish a curriculum that teachers could embed from a different standpoint,” she said. “I think my poetry units are unique because I am not teaching them as an English teacher. They are more of a crash course in being creative.”

Santos says the most important concept she can impart to her students will serve them whatever the circumstances.

“I am teaching them to learn,” she said. “The greatest thing I want them to know when they get out of my classroom is how to think. I want them to be problem solvers.”

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