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Structure is important to Laura Gómez.

School, said the third-grade teacher at Martin Elementary in Santa Ana, needs to be predictable.

“For some kids, school may be the most structure they get in their lives.”

As an immigrant who grew up in a working class home, Gómez understands the struggles that some of her Mexican American students may face. She works to inspire them, to offer experiences that broaden their worlds.

  • Laura Gomez, a third-grade teacher at Glenn Martin Elementary School in Santa Ana, reads a book to her students online on Wednesday, December 16, 2020. Gomez was named California Teacher of the Year in October and has taught in the Santa Ana Unified School District for 26 years. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A small sign in the classroom of Laura Gomez, a third-grade teacher at Glenn Martin Elementary School in Santa Ana on Wednesday, December 16, 2020. Gomez was named California Teacher of the Year in October and has taught in the Santa Ana Unified School District for 26 years. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Standing in her empty classroom, Laura Gomez, a third-grade teacher at Glenn Martin Elementary School in Santa Ana, teaches her students online on Wednesday, December 16, 2020. Gomez was named California Teacher of the Year in October and has taught in the Santa Ana Unified School District for 26 years. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Laura Gomez, a third-grade teacher at Glenn Martin Elementary School in Santa Ana, prepares to take a class photo with her students after making holiday glasses online on Wednesday, December 16, 2020. Gomez was named California Teacher of the Year in October and has taught in the Santa Ana Unified School District for 26 years. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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In Gómez’ class, there are games, books, math, field trips and interactive programs – all things that engage kids and even their families. And for that teaching style, along with her creativity and dedication to students, Gómez in October was one of five teachers to be named California Teacher of the Year.

To dream is to learn

The 49-year-old sees the recognition as an honor to her mother, a divorced mom who raised her and her six siblings while cleaning houses.

“I always felt that part of what I did was a tribute to my mom’s efforts and sacrifices,” Gómez said.

Gómez, born in Tijuana, was 12 when she came to the United States, moving with her family to San Diego County and, later, to Los Angeles. Six years later, when she graduated from Franklin High, she was the first in her family to get a high school diploma.

At Franklin, she said she was noticed by her French teacher. The teacher recommended Gómez for Advanced Placement courses and a special magnet program. More importantly, the teacher exposed Gómez and other students to new experiences, things like dinner at a fancy French restaurant, a theater date to see “Les Miserables,” and the ultimate experience: a trip to Paris.

At the time, Gómez worked after school for a downtown jewelry mart, where she learned how to make rubber molds to cast gold rings and other jewels.

“I worked for an amazing man,” she said. “Every time I would get to work, he asked me about my day. When I told him about my French teacher planning a trip to Paris, he said: ‘Is that something you want to do? You’re going!’”

Gómez’ boss set up a plan to deduct a certain amount from her paycheck so she learned how to pay for it herself.  “He helped me open my first bank account.”

The day before the Paris trip, the man gave her a gift: A new camera, with plenty of film and batteries.

“I hadn’t even thought of that.”

The trip was life changing. Seeing the world, Gómez said, “made me dream.”

Little windows, big world

Gómez, a UC Irvine graduate, teaches her students that the world is vast and there’s a lot to see and learn.

Every school year she takes students on several field trips. And every summer, kids who enroll in an enrichment program get weekly field trips, (financed by grants), to museums, colleges and other sites.

“A lot of times, when you come from families where there isn’t a history of education or that level of exposure, it’s not that you can’t do things. But sometimes there’s a lack of knowledge of what’s out there.”

The field trips, she said, offer students “little windows into the world.”

But providing that kind of enrichment – like so much else in education – is difficult during a pandemic. So Gómez has adjusted. A class trip to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, for example, became a virtual field trip.

“We’re just trying to get creative.”

Since the pandemic and the launch of distance learning, Gómez sometimes teaches from her Costa Mesa home, which she shares with her husband and their teenage daughter. But, mostly, she teaches from her classroom.

“It’s important for me for the kids to see themselves at school,” she said.

But everything has been adapted to virtual learning.

“Book tastings” – which in a typical year means a buffet of books spread out over checkerboard tablecloths – has evolved online into a digital library, with a different book promoted each week. The monthly “chit chat,” where her students learn the basics of making research-driven presentations, are now presented via video.  And “readers’ theater” has became “family edition,” with children filming themselves at home while engaging with their families.

“Family involvement is huge for me,” Gómez said.

And adapting during online learning is key.

During a traditional school year, Gómez schedules events such as family math night (in which students and their families come to school to play math-oriented games,) and she stages “slime parties” to reward student achievements.

But in an online setting, she has students play math games with their families in the evening and send out photos of the event the next day.

And the slime? That they’ve got. It was delivered with last month’s packet of academic work.

“We need to continue to make school fun and interesting and something for them to look forward to.”

As a teacher with 26 years in the Santa Ana Unified School District,  Gómez said she incorporates fun into a very structured day, one that includes reading and math break-outs with smaller groups. Fun also comes with high expectations for her 24 students.

Some things are not negotiable, she said. For example, no one can attend class from bed. “If you start on a bed, you get comfortable. Then you’re melting into your bed.”

And they need to wear their uniforms, even if they’re learning from home.

But not this Friday. It’s pajama day.

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By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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