Sarahí Monterrey often spends her moments in the classroom helping students navigate their education and process of self-discovery.
“I remember reflecting on my educational experience. I only had two teachers of color in my whole education experience,” she said.
Monterrey began her career in education about 16 years ago. She has been a familiar face to faculty, staff, students and families at Waukesha North High School for about seven years. Last year, Monterrey was named Wisconsin’s Teacher of the Year and represented Wisconsin in the National Teacher of the Year program last month.
“Sarahí really sees the whole person when she looks at her students,” Governor Tony Evers, the former State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a statement. “Her focus on growth both in her students and in her school’s programs makes her an excellent representative for Wisconsin in this prestigious program.”
Monterrey works as an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher at North High School. She said some students often come in ready to learn but there are some students who struggle. Monterrey strives to help each one of her students progress in their academic life.
“I knew ever since I was a little girl when we played school, I knew I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said.
Monterrey’s family immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when she was just a year old. In El Salvador, her father, aunt and uncle were all teachers, so to her, teaching is in her blood.
She remembers her father having to learn English and pursuing an education in the U.S. while she was in middle school. Monterrey said she went to find her father after coming home from middle school one day, only to find him listening to lecture tapes over and over again.
“For me, that was like this pivotal moment of determination,” she said.
Monterrey said after watching her father, she felt she had no excuse not to succeed. She then pursued both her bachelor and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she also met her husband. When choosing her professional field, Monterrey decided bilingual education suited her best.
“I thought why not, I’m bilingual, and I had this very real inclination to become a teacher,” she said.
Monterrey said good teachers show empathy toward their students and focus on building a relationship with them in the beginning. She makes an effort to check in with her students each day and see how they are doing. For Monterrey, content enters the classroom after she has created a safe, respectful, and empowering culture for her students.
“A lot of my classes I start with a quote, something to motivate them,” she said.
While students often navigate distractions both in and outside of the classroom, Monterrey said she takes the time to get to know her students. She also believes it’s critical to continue to hold them to high standards. In her role, she works to ensure all students have access to an inclusive curriculum and improved family communication. Monterrey also makes sure her students have access to extracurricular activities and support to be ready for college.
One of those distractions for many of Monterrey’s students in particular is all the legal, political and personal issues surrounding immigration. Throughout her time at Waukesha North, she has helped inform her colleagues on the impact of immigration policies on students. Now, when students walk the halls they are greeted with posters that read “Dreamers Welcome” and “This School Welcomes You.”
“Those little things make a difference because they’re visible,” Monterrey said.
In the future, she worries more students will be affected now that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is no longer accepting new applicants. Recently, Monterrey had the opportunity to meet with Congress and express some concerns she had.
“We’re going to start seeing students who don’t feel like they have an open door for college,” she said.
While policy concerning child immigrants continues to change, Monterrey hopes to continue to inspire her students. She loves her role as an educator and feels proud of her students.
“A lot of time we hear about achievement gaps but a lot of time those real memorable moments are providing students with those opportunities,” Monterrey said.