Stella Rodriguez, A2 Open 1st/2nd grade teacher

Stella Rodriguez grew up in Ypsilanti while attending school in Ann Arbor. She attended a magnet charter school, the Ann Arbor Learning Community in the early grades, followed by Pattengill Elementary and Tappan Middle School before graduating from Community High School in 2011.

After high school, Rodriguez attended Washtenaw Community College while deciding on a career path. Once she chose to become a teacher, she transferred to Eastern Michigan University where she majored in Elementary Education with a minor in Reading. Rodriguez comes from a family rooted in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area. Her parents and grandparents are all locals. Her father runs an umpiring business and also works part-time supervising lunch at A2 Open. Meanwhile, her mother still owns and operates Randazzo Dance, the studio started by Rodriguez’s mother’s mother, Marjorie Randazzo, more than 50 years ago. On Saturdays, you can often find Rodriguez or her sister teaching dance classes there alongside their mom.

Ann Arbor Open Principal Krista Visser says Rodriguez is a passionate educator who works hard for each individual child, using visual, auditory, and kinesthetic instruction to reach all students.

“Stella is skilled with probing a deeper understanding with higher order thinking questions,” says Visser.  “She gives students a voice.  I admire Stella because she stays true to herself in doing what she thinks is best for every student.”

Why did you pursue a career in teaching?
I come from a family of educators. My mom and her mom were dance teachers and my older sister and her husband are both teachers as well. When I first started college I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I took a bunch of classes while I figured it out. Then one summer it clicked. I even remember the exact moment I decided to become a teacher. I was a camp counselor and I was having a very bad day. I got upset with a camper for something and later that day I felt like I was too hard on her, so I went over to apologize and share my why. Then she did the most kind thing ever: She forgave me. She then made it her mission to make me laugh, which she definitely did. At that moment I thought to myself, if I teach I’ll be okay because kids are awesome and will go out of their way to make you smile.

Stella Rodriguez set up a field trip last month so her students could tour historic sites in Kerrytown significant to the African American community.

Describe an average workday. 
There is no such thing as an average day of teaching because every day is different for a million different reasons. The closest I can give to an average day is that someone will always be happy and someone will always be sad. You will always have something go wrong but you will also always have hugs. Sometimes you will have tears and if you are lucky you will get a quiet moment to look around your classroom and smile at the community you have created for your students. 

What are your best tips for classroom management?
At the beginning of the year, and sprinkled throughout as well, I spend time building classroom community through games, conversations, and laughter. We also practice and repeat our regular routines like cleaning up, getting in line, and walking through the hall. We work hard to create a classroom culture built on the shared values of working hard, being kind, and being mindful.  

Having a strong connection with your students and maintaining an honest dialogue. When students know who you are and know that you love them no matter what then you can begin to have honest conversations about behavior and self-regulation. 

I also spend a lot of time trying to find solutions to issues in the classroom as opposed to just reprimanding the behavior. The most effective way to stop a problem from happening is to address the root cause of the issue instead of just the behavior that stems from it. 

Why did you want to work for Ann Arbor Public Schools?
As a Community High alum, I knew immediately when I decided to pursue teaching that I wanted to work at Ann Arbor Open. I did my student teaching there in 2017 and then returned in 2021 to teach 1st and 2nd grade. 

What do you like about working at A2 Open specifically?
I love that I get to be creative and collaborate with my ½ teaching team! I get to approach teaching from the perspective of my students to make learning relevant to them. I also get to work closely with my other ½ teachers to plan field trips and share teaching responsibilities. For example, with the new phonics curriculum, we worried about differentiation in our multi-age classes, so we worked to find four times throughout the week that we could split our students amongst the teachers so that each student could get phonics instruction at their level. 
Also, I love that we acknowledge the learning that happens in everyday life and that we provide an opportunity for students to learn from each other.

What’s the happiest part of your workday?
I love Read Aloud more than any other part of my day. I love changing voices for characters, I love the communal joy of a shared story, and I love the silence that manifests when everybody is tuned into a powerful narrative!  There is just something about sharing a story that helps you connect with the people around you. 

How do you build strong relationships with your students?
Play with your students! Participate in class games, swing on the playground, or join them in a dance party. Making an effort to connect with them the same way they connect with peers makes a lasting impact. 

Is there anything in particular you want to accomplish by the end of the school year?

I want my students to enjoy coming to school, I want them to love learning, and to feel safe asking questions to gain understanding.

How do you handle stress and avoid burnout?

  • Set clear boundaries and stick to them. 
  • Try not to take things personally. 
  • Know when something is good enough to be done because there is not enough time or energy for perfection.  

What do you want most for your students?
A good world for them to grow up in. 

If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be?
A professional thrifter. But I don’t want to deal with the selling part. I just want to search for vintage treasures! 

Was there a teacher who had a particularly strong influence on your career? If so, what did you learn?
Steve Coron at Community High School had a tremendous impact on me. Steve was my forum leader and the photography teacher when Community still had a working dark room. From Steve, I learned about the power of authenticity. Looking back I don’t think Steve ever treated us any differently than he would treat any of the adults in his life. I felt respected for my choices, regardless of whether he would have made them himself. Because of Steve, I understand the value of connecting with my students and the benefits of doing that by being silly. 

What are your thoughts on the district’s focus this year on dignity, belonging, and well-being?
I think it’s really wonderful to have this intention, but I don’t always feel like messaging lines up with their actions. If well-being was the district’s focus, we would have been given sick days for Covid-related illnesses, especially after receiving an email directive asking us to stay home for five days if we contract Covid. If the district believed in dignity they would pay teachers, and more importantly teachers’ aids, a living wage so we could afford to live in the city we teach in. 

I respect the district’s intention and I think it’s important for us as teachers to place our students’ dignity, well-being, and sense of belonging at the forefront of our instruction. I just wish that extended to staff as well. 

How is teaching different from the way you imagined it would be?
It is a more reactive job than I expected it to be. I feel like I spend many days reacting to problems and managing issues rather than getting ahead of them in order to prevent them. 

What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?
No, you are not doing anything wrong—it really is this hard. Yes, some parts will always be this hard, but others will get easier with time. 

Learn how you like things organized, both physically and digitally, because nothing feels worse than knowing you have something but not being able to find it when you need it!

Don’t try to change who you are to make it fit into that box of what you think teaching needs to be, learn who you are and build your classroom routines around that. 

What’s the best compliment anyone could give you?
When people notice your effort and express gratitude for it.
Also one time I was sitting down at a table and when I stood up someone said they thought I was taller, so that felt pretty good!

What’s the funniest thing a student ever said or did?
There are literally too many things to count, but I always get a good chuckle when I see someone reading in a non-traditional position. 

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
I love feeling loved by my students and connecting with their families. Teaching is a job that connects you with all types of people and I am grateful for the people I have learned from and supported in order to become a better teacher every day. 
Also, snow days!

How do you build strong relationships with your students?
Be consistent. Be authentic. Be silly.

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?
I worry about the future of this profession. Between district, parental, and personal expectations, many of us are struggling under the weight of it all. I think because of the increasing difficulty of our jobs, criticism hits harder than it has in the past and makes teaching in the face of constant criticism even harder. I wish people understood the power of curiosity in the face of a problem. By asking questions instead of placing blame, we can better understand the nuance of a situation and have more success when trying to solve it. 

What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? 
I have been really excited about all the opportunities to further my education since starting at AAPS. I am constantly learning from my colleagues, I have participated in math and science training, and I have recently finished a certification for reading and writing instruction called LETRS. I am also in the grant-funded Grow Your Own program, which is a two-year graduate program through Western Michigan University for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). 

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