Educator of the Year award recipient 'engages' students and their families

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Jul. 18—As honored as Dalia Santiago was to receive the Tom Jones Educator of the Year Award, it was catching sight of her family when her name was announced that turned on the tears.

"I started crying when I saw them, (and) it was very emotional, because if not for them, I wouldn't be where I am today," said Santiago, who has devoted three decades to education, the past quarter of a century in Dalton Public Schools. "They know the school day doesn't end at 3:15 p.m."

"It's not 'It's 3:15, go home,'" she said. There are nights and weekends, because "you have to plan and see what you're going to do."

"You have to be creative with kids, motivate them, and engage them," she said. "If they're not engaged, they won't listen to you."

Santiago "is an incredible teacher (who) is focused on the students, (and) she is always working to make learning more engaging for students," said Scott Ehlers, Santiago's principal at Westwood School. "She is a great collaborator, too."

The Georgia Project Santiago started in Dalton Public Schools in 1997 as part of the Georgia Project, a teacher exchange program focused on serving Hispanic students, teaching Spanish-speaking children at Roan School.

"I was working on my master's at the" University of Monterrey in her hometown of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, but "I had taught in Houston," Texas, for two years, so she had experience in American schools, and she was teaching at a local private school, she said. "I like adventure, and I was single at the time," so she applied to the Georgia Project and was selected.

Initially, she planned to stay only six years, the limit of a work visa, but "I met my husband," Hector Santiago, and they married in 2001, she said. The main thing she truly misses about her homeland is "my family," as most remain in Mexico, but she tries to visit at least a couple of times a year, and her children — teen sons Orlando and Jose Armando (she also has a stepdaughter, Natalia Santiago-Mayer, who is married and lives in Chattanooga) — "love it," so much so the family tends to alternate spending Christmas in Mexico and celebrating the holiday in Puerto Rico, where her husband's relatives reside.

After a few years at Roan School, she moved to City Park School for 18 years, initially in the school's language academy, then as an English to Speakers of Other Languages teacher before moving to Dalton Middle School. She's spent the last few years as a first-grade dual language immersion teacher at Westwood School.

"In Houston, I did the bilingual program, and the dual language immersion (program) is similar," she said. "I'm kind of finishing the same way I started."

Dual language immersion "Dual language immersion is for everyone," Santiago said. "It's the future for kids."

Proficiency in both Spanish and English allows students to communicate with relatives who may speak only one of those languages, and "you need to speak more than one language, now, because everything is worldwide with globalism," she said. A bilingual student will have "a better opportunity, or, at least, another, different opportunity" that a student who speaks only one language won't, so "let's give them these opportunities."

And with dual language immersion, students learn not only social language but "academic language," because subjects are taught in that tongue, she said. Santiago, for example, teaches math and science in Spanish, and she'll use any tools to reach her students.

Last year's "group, they love to sing, so we (did) a lot of singing," she said. "We learn the names of (various) fruits and sing about them, we sing about the weather, whatever it takes."

Flexible approach "Some need to move, so they can dance if they sing the words," she said. "Kids learn differently, and you do whatever" is necessary to stimulate their brains and "creativity."

Santiago adroitly "brings the culture piece of dual language into the classroom from sharing experiences from her life in Mexico," Ehlers said. "She is also a great mentor for other teachers in the dual language program."

Santiago and her co-teacher, Molly Chitwood, have displayed creativity in connecting with parents of students during the COVID-19 pandemic, updating families through an Instagram account, a Facebook page, a weekly email and a daily folder, in addition to online meetings and conferences.

"That's part of being a good teacher, (because) communicating with parents is very important," Santiago said. "Parents want to see what their kids are doing at school, and they (hadn't been) able to visit them (due to the pandemic), but a picture tells them a lot."

In 2019, Santiago helped organize the first International Conservation Symposium at Dalton State College with Carmen Flammini, and a pair of professors from Mexico spoke to Santiago's students at Dalton Middle School about monarch butterflies.

"It was an experience for them, (to hear from) two experts," she said. "They understood and asked lots of questions."

Seeing her students understand is her favorite part of teaching.

"You can see, it's clicking for them, it's connecting," she said. "The most important thing is that they grow, whatever the subject is."

She also appreciates bumping into former students and seeing what they've accomplished with their lives, she said: "That's the part I enjoy the most."

Affirmation Named for the chairman of the Dalton Board of Education from 1967-1986, the Tom Jones award recognizes educators who have made significant contributions in the education of Dalton Public Schools children and symbolize excellence in teaching, according to Dalton Public Schools. Candidates are chosen based on their relationship with students, accomplishments, relationships with parents and their relationship with their community.

Other finalists for this year's award included:

—Miguel Gonzalez, The Dalton Academy.

—Mary Kiker, Brookwood School.

—Melanie Lovingood, City Park School.

—Stephanie Redding, Westwood School.

—Carol Satterfield, Hammond Creek Middle School.

—Amanda Swinney, Westwood School.

—Hannah Talley, City Park School.

"It was a surprise (to receive the award), because they're all excellent teachers," Santiago said. Satterfield "was my mentor at Dalton Middle School, Miguel is an excellent teacher, and Hannah and I started at City Park the same year."

The recognition means "I'm doing something right," she added with a laugh. "I'm going to keep trying new things and doing better and better."