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Empathy is driving force behind Teacher of the Year
FIU alumna Vanessa Valle (center) holds her 2021 Teacher of the Year Trophy. At far right is fellow FIU alumnus Oliver Diez, Miami-Dade's 2020 Teacher of the Year.

Empathy is driving force behind Teacher of the Year

Vanessa Valle is 20th FIU alumnus to receive Miami-Dade honor

February 6, 2020 at 1:45pm

As a high school student, Vanessa Valle struggled with reading comprehension until a teacher’s act of empathy showed her how to make sense of it all.

It was that simple act ­– asking her to visualize the actions on the page like a movie – that inspired Valle to pursue four degrees at FIU. It also informed her teaching style.

“That’s where my heart was,” Valle said. “I wanted to transform how others saw reading and how struggling readers could get it because someone helped me when I learned to get it through someone. I wanted to be that person for them.”

The FIU College of Arts, Sciences & Education alumna was recently named the Miami-Dade County Public Schools 2021 Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year. She is the 20th FIU alumnus to receive the award since 1973. Stephen M. Pereira, an alumnus of the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs was the runner-up. He teaches Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics and Macroeconomics at the School for Advanced Studies.

Valle has taught at Hialeah Gardens Senior High School for most of her 15-year career. While she started as an English and Intensive Reading teacher, the school’s principal asked her to take on the role of literacy coach, working with other teachers through coaching cycles to help them improve their craft.

Six years later, she returned to the classroom while still serving as a literacy coach. That was when Valle noticed one student who was struggling in one of her classes. The student, who had legal issues and a mental health diagnosis, had all but given up. Valle saw something in him. Intent on making his talents show, she watched as he unfolded a little more each day. The student would tell Valle to stop caring. She didn’t. Seeing him improve let Valle know she was on the right path.

“Often times as teachers, we become so closed minded and so focused on getting the content across that we lose the sense of that empathy component,” Valle said.

During her own academic journey, Valle was inspired by FIU professors like Melanie Morales who taught her to empathize with the students with exceptionalities. Erskine Dottin inspired Valle to consider students of various cultures and their differences. And Joyce Fine helped develop Valle’s love for reading.


valle-toy-and-morales-2020-600x720.jpgVanessa Valle (left) celebrates her 2021 Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year win with FIU instructor Melanie Morales.

Their collective influence informs how Valle works as literary coach, teacher, reading chairperson, lead teacher of the high school’s Academy of Law Studies, dual enrollment instructor, FIU adjunct professor, mother of three and doctoral student – Valle certainly has her hands full.

“My end dream is to work with FIU and to keep molding teachers to love the classroom, go in with an open heart and transform students into developing the love of learning,” Valle said.