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Meet Steven Alvarez - Our 2020 WEA ESP of the Year

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It was 4:30 on a Friday afternoon and Steven Alvarez was asked if he would join a Zoom conference to talk about paraeducator issues during the Covid-19 crisis.

Yes, of course, he said. Going above and beyond is part of his reputation.

But the pretense was a hoax: when Alvarez joined the call, WEA leaders revealed the real reason was to announce he is WEA’s 2020 Education Support Professional of the Year.

Alvarez works as an Instructional Assistant at Seattle’s Wedgwood Elementary, where he has earned a reputation for forging relationships with struggling students, for being a local leader, for community volunteer activities and for his sense of humor. He also is studying to become a certificated special education teacher.

“I’m that goofy guy,” Alvarez laughs. “I’m that goofy teacher that is skipping up and down the hallway, singing songs. And teachers and administration just look at me like, ‘OK, Steven must be doing some kind of lesson right now.”

And he is. His zaniness carries a purpose. He might be teaching students to skip count, counting by 2s or 5s, as he is skipping down the hallway. Another day he’s leading students around the lunchroom, showing them how the number of tiles on the floor can be used to model the area of the room.

“He always, and in every situation, puts students first — their needs, their hopes, their interests, their education, and their well-being,” says Donna Guise, the Wedgwood Resource Room teacher who nominated Alvarez for the award. “Every student.  Every classroom.  Every day. He lives the mission statement of Seattle Schools and is a role model for us all in how to engage with, challenge, and care for each other.”

Alvarez’s role is to assist students in Wedgwood’s Resource Room — students who may have fallen one, two, even three grade-levels behind. Sometimes that means visiting their classroom to help with a subject where they’re struggling. Other times he’ll pull them out of class to work one-on-one or in small groups.

He finds humor is a valuable education tool. A student’s struggle with math may elicit anxieties that spark behavioral issues.

“You’re trying to do anything and everything so that they don’t just shut down,” he says. “Or I see a kid starting to get a little bit frustrated, (so I’m) trying to de-escalate a kid just with laughter or humor, trying to get them out of that funk so I can take them back into class. Yeah, I’m that weird guy. I love being that weird teacher that does that.”

It took Alvarez several twists and turns to discover his true calling was public education. In previous careers, he worked in an administrative role in an Internet company, and provided executive protection for CEOs or their children. But his wife, third-grade teacher Kami Wahl, knew he wasn’t happy. She urged him to find his passion, then pursue it. As a former marathon runner, he was volunteering with middle school runners. He had a couple family members with special needs. Soon, it all clicked.

Reflecting back, one big reason was something that he missed as he grew up in a small Oregon town: He didn’t have an elementary teacher that was a male. And especially not a male of color.

“It wasn’t until one of my first at-risk middle school kids that I worked with told me, ‘Mr. Alvarez, oh my gosh, you look like us. You have tattoos. You’re brown. And you’re a teacher — how can that be? I’ve never had a teacher like you.’”

Alvarez now realizes there is another reason he connects with his kids.

“I also was a kid, as an elementary kid, who utilized the Resource Room. I didn’t realize it at the time, until I got older,” he recalls. “I spent a year, almost two years in the resource room, because they thought I didn’t’ understand English. But it wasn't that. I was shy."

He’s no longer shy about speaking out. He’s a member of Wedgwood’s Building Leadership Team, taking concerns of the school’s support professionals and classroom teachers to administrators. And he served on Seattle’s bargaining team, helping ensure paraeducators’ concerns were heard.

He’s now focused on securing his master’s in Special Ed and becoming a classroom teacher, and he’s set for that challenge, too.

“I love Mr. Rogers,” he laughs, “And I love to wear my sweater-vest every day to school. And I hope to be the next Hispanic Mr. Rogers: ‘Welcome to Mr. Alvarez’s Classroom!’ That’s my goal!”

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