¡Ay caramba: Columbia Spanish teacher nabs major award

Nursery Road Elementary teacher Vanessa Torres is state's lone recipient of prestigious Milken Educator Award

Walk through the halls of Nursery Road Elementary School in Columbia and they may be abuzz with students conversing in Spanish.


With daughter and Nursery Road kindergarten student Sophia by her side, Spanish teacher Vanessa Torres calls her husband to tell him the good news about her surprise win minutes earlier of the 2017 Milken Educator Award and $25,000. (Photos courtesy Milken Family Foundation)

That’s a credit to the work of K-5 Spanish teacher Vanessa Torres, whose students’ buzzing voices turned into loud cheers when she was surprised Tuesday morning with the nationally prestigious Milken Educator Award at an all-school assembly.

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Jane Foley, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, and Lexington-Richland School District Five Superintendent Stephen Hefner were on hand to bestow the recognition upon Torres.

This season marks the 30th year of the Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the “Oscars of Teaching.”

Torres is South Carolina’s only recipient of the Milken Educator Award this year, and she is among up to 35 honorees who will receive the prestigious honor nationwide for 2017. In addition to the honor, Torres also received a $25,000 cash prize she can use any way she chooses.

“Vanessa Torres ignites a passion for learning in students at Nursery Road Elementary,” said Foley. “By infusing the rich language of Spanish into students’ education—and making connections across the curriculum—Vanessa is enhancing students’ experiences and instilling life lessons of cultural respect and understanding that they will remember throughout their lives. I salute her and am excited to track her exciting career in the profession.”

vanessa-torres-disbelieving“I am so proud of Vanessa and the commitment to excellence she exhibits every day to her students at Nursery Road Elementary,” said Spearman. “Mrs. Torres serves not only her students but her fellow teachers and the Lexington-Richland 5 through her leadership and passion for education.”

Torres’ boss was just as effusive in his praise of the prized instructor.

“We are so proud of Mrs. Torres!” Hefner exclaimed. “She is a caring, competent and dedicated teacher who strives every day to make a positive difference for her students. I extend my congratulations as well to the entire Nursery Road faculty and staff. This honor reflects the wonderful school culture and the great teaching and learning that happens at Nursery Road every day.”

At Nursery Road Elementary, Torres immerses students in learning the Spanish language with storytelling, skits, games, songs, salsa dancing, and peso-point prize raffles—all conducted entirely in Spanish. When Torres and her students meet in the halls, they greet each other and converse in Spanish. At the end of the year, Torres takes her students to a local Mexican restaurant so they can practice their language skills in a real-world setting.

Torres teaches all students at Nursery Road Elementary, which is classified a “high-performing” Title I school. Her classes include a large number of students with disabilities. Officials said she excels at differentiating her classroom activities to engage students at all levels, from special education to gifted and talented.

Officials noted Torres invigorated the Spanish program at the school, engaging students, parents, teachers and the community. Now, students practice their Spanish songs and dances at home and look forward to their weekly Spanish lessons with Torres.

More than 80 percent of Torres’ students exceeded their 80-percent+ accuracy goals on the assessments Torres developed to track her students’ progress in line with state standards.

Known for her unbridled energy, officials said Torres inspires her colleagues with her infectious passion for teaching. She works with teachers in all content areas to connect her Spanish curriculum with their standards and instruction.

Torres also chairs the Nursery Road Elementary Walk to School, a successful event that brings students, parents, and community members together to walk students to school. To boost student participation, Torres convinced local athletic stores to donate clothing and sporting equipment, then held grade-level drawings in which participants won footballs, bicycles, and more.

She also led the school’s efforts in the District Five Dance Marathon, a benefit for a local children’s hospital; thanks to such efforts, Nursery Road Elementary led the district in participation and fundraising, officials noted.

Torres serves on numerous committees, attends World Language Teacher Leader meetings, and is helping Nursery Road Elementary in its efforts to become an Arts Integration school. When district visitors observe at the school, they stop in Torres’ classroom.

Officials said Torres can also be counted on for special projects at the school and district. She choreographs musical numbers tied to instructional themes during the school’s twice-yearly all-school performances. Though Torres landed close to home – she is a Columbia native and was graduated as valedictorian from Columbia High School – she has studied abroad in Spain, Costa Rica, and Indonesia.

Torres earned a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and sociology from Furman University in 2003 and a Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and intercultural studies from Columbia International University in 2005.