From the first day Maria Quiroz-Diaz brought her “tiny, anxious” daughter to the deLacey Family Education Center, preschool teacher Yasmin Villamar has embraced the girl.
Villamar goes out of her way to ensure 4-year-old Valencia, and all the other students, feels cared for “and a part of the classroom,” Quiroz-Diaz said.
That’s why the Carpentersville mom nominated Villamar for the Those Who Excel Award from the Illinois State Board of Education.
The award honors educators who have made significant contributions to the state’s public and nonpublic elementary and secondary schools. Villamar was recognized for meritorious service in the program’s Early Career Educator category.
“Yasmin is a wonderful teacher,” said Karin De La Paz, principal at the Community School District 300 school in Carpentersville, where Villamar is in her fourth year of teaching in the bilingual blended class of at-risk and special education students.
These are things that not only mean the world to me, but to the children.”— Maria Quiroz-Diaz
“Ms. Villamar has shown an exceptional ability, in the span of a very short time, to create individualized plans for students to support their needs,” De La Paz said.
Quiroz-Diaz regularly volunteers in the classroom and said she sees how Villamar goes out of her way to be sure the children – many of whom have different religious backgrounds, beliefs and needs – always feel included.
“My daughter is very tiny in size, and the first time [I took] her to preschool, I was so anxious and nervous, so scared to send her into a room full of kids. … She didn’t even reach the chairs,” Quiroz-Diaz recalled.
But Villamar quickly became aware of the concern, Quiroz-Diaz said.
She soon noticed Villamar had a “special chair” for her daughter that she could climb up and down on. She also pulled the chair closer to the table to make it easier for her to participate in activities.
“These are things that not only mean the world to me, but to the children,” Quiroz-Diaz said. “I notice that with all the kids. I just love the way she treats them, the way she talks to the little children. I feel like she makes her feel like her feelings matter and whatever [any of the children] have to say matters.”
Villamar said at the beginning of each school year, when a student appears to be struggling with social or separation anxiety – which is more prominent after the COVID-19 pandemic – she creates personalized storybooks for them. She includes photos of them and their families at home and of them with friends at school to help reassure them, she said.
“She will make sure none of the kids’ feelings are ever hurt or feel they are not included,” Quiroz-Diaz said.
Quiroz-Diaz, who requested Villamar to be her daughter’s teacher for a second year this year, said she sees the positive influence Villamar has had on her daughter. She has seen her daughter’s confidence, discipline, personality and excitement for learning blossom. She is excited to go to school every day, where she feels safe, has fun and “enjoys learning.”
“I see the way my daughter expresses things, and I know she learns it from school,” she said. “[Villamar] just really takes care of them in their education and in helping them grow as humans.”
De La Paz said Villamar communicates frequently with parents and incorporates what she learns from them into lesson plans and activities personalized to students’ interests.
“She is an active problem-solver, using a team approach that includes facilitating conversations with speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists and paraprofessionals,” the principal said. “She embeds social-emotional learning through natural interactions with children and uses her calm demeanor with students as they learn social skills. She has an extraordinary amount of patience with her students and addresses situations with a positive attitude.”
Villamar said she is “most proud” of the relationships she has formed with her students’ families and being part of the first school experience in the lives of her young students.
She strives to make sure that the parents know they are a valuable member of the team educating their children and makes a point of keeping all lines of communication open.
She begins each year giving parents a form to fill out to share with her what their and their children’s personality, hopes, dreams and motivations are.
She enjoys meeting in small groups with her students and being very hands-on in making crafts and cooking pancakes. For Valentine’s Day, she hosted a “kindness party” attended by parents, during which students made necklaces and read books about kindness.
Villamar said that as a teacher, she is most concerned with her students’ social and emotional development.
She said she is encouraged when seeing her students’ “personality flourish in the classroom and they become more independent and take ownership of their learning.”