By Cathi Douglas
When fifth-grader Leslie Amaro received an outstanding achievement award from her Bathgate Elementary School teacher, the award inspired her to pursue a career in education.
Amaro is now in her second year as a first-grade bilingual teacher at San Juan Elementary School.
The 24-year-old Rancho Santa Margarita resident says Dr. Diane Horton’s example and the honor she awarded Amaro inspired her to earn a bachelor’s degree at Cal State Fullerton and a master’s degree in elementary education and teaching credential from USC.
“Once I received the award, I was motivated to study harder and more,” she recalls. “When things were tough, it inspired me to try my best, no matter the subject or grade level.”
“She believed in me,” Amaro says. “I suffer a lot from thinking less of myself, and it drove me when she saw my potential to move forward through the challenges.”
Growing up in South Orange County, Amaro graduated from Trabuco Hills High School. She was a quiet, serious student who loved to learn. Her parents, Monica and Miguel, and her younger sister, who is studying to become a history teacher, have always supported her education and career.
“I don’t know where or what I would have done without them,” she says.
Her Calvary Chapel youth pastor, Bobby Johnson, inspired her to pursue higher education and ultimately attend USC.
“We still talk, and he is still motivating and inspiring me daily,” she says. “He was caring, kind, and so communicative.”
Amaro says she is an introvert who enjoys spending time alone, and credits an Irvine Valley College communications course with giving her public speaking experience — a skill integral to successful classroom teaching.
“It was very difficult,” she remembers, “but the teacher was supportive and helped me open up a lot.”
The most challenging part of her job is classroom management in firm but caring ways. First graders are learning how to behave in the classroom, when to talk, how to listen, and academic skills such as reading and writing.
“It’s difficult at times,” Amaro admits, “but I can really see how they are maturing and growing as the year progresses.”
She observes that some students struggle with sounds, and then they learn how to decode and read small words, and their progress is quick and recognizable. She says her students’ caring attitude and honesty can combine in many rewarding moments. One recent example was when she chose to wear her face mask while teaching.
“One little girl told me, ‘Miss Amaro, you have such a beautiful face. You shouldn’t hide it!”
Amaro says her fellow San Juan Elementary first-grade teachers have been inspiring, collaborative, and creative in supporting her as a new teacher. Amaro says that her mentor teacher, Leslie Le, and fellow teachers Luz Hamidi, Veronica Ramirez, and Rosario Segovia have ensured that she enjoys every minute of her work.
“They’ve been super supportive, and the loving environment makes me feel supported,” she says.
Ultimately, Amaro says she would like to pursue an administrative credential and work at the district level.
“My heart is for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners,” she notes. “I see areas where we can be more supportive of students and families. I’ve had some colleagues recommend getting a principal credential.”
In the meantime, Amaro wants to continue to grow as a teacher, including pursuing additional professional development.
“I want to earn a Ph.D. in education because I don’t see many people of my heritage and color with (the degree),” she says.
“I’m proud to be the first in my family to graduate from a university and earn a master’s degree,” she adds. “I’m grateful for this opportunity in CUSD, and the chance to give back to the kids. I’m enjoying every second of it.”
So, for now, she concentrates on following Dr. Horton’s example in the classroom. She wants her own students to know how much she cares about them.
“I want them to love learning and continue their education,” she says.
“They can reach as high as they want as long as they try their best,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, your family history, or any of that. You can succeed.”