Houston, we have liftoff! Two COE alums reach stars with Texas teaching awards

NIU alumna Jessica Dyra, right, is the 2020 Beginning Teacher of the Year in the Houston Independent School District. Noelle Stecher, right, a teacher at the same school, is the 2020 Teacher of the Year.
Congratulations! NIU alumna Jessica Dyra, right, is the 2020 Beginning Teacher of the Year in the Houston Independent School District. Noelle Stecher, right, a teacher at the same school, is the 2020 Teacher of the Year.

Jessica Dyra and Aimee Zepeda are proof of the power of positive role models.

“I’ve always liked school, and as I grew up, I saw how much of an impact my teachers had on me,” says Dyra, who is from Crystal Lake. “I was inspired to make an impact like that on someone else’s life.”

Zepeda also uses the word “impact” in describing her teacher-inspired decision to join the profession.

Her actual practice of teaching began early.

“When my two younger siblings were in the process of learning to read, I was in high school,” says Zepeda, raised in Rochelle and Aurora. “I loved seeing how much their brains could absorb; how much they could reciprocate what you were telling them. That’s when I fell in love with teaching.”

Both NIU College of Education alumni are now teachers in the giant Houston Independent School District (HISD) in Texas, where Dyra is the 2020 Beginning Teacher of the Year and Zepeda is the 2020 Bilingual Teacher of the Year.

One of the college’s partners in Educate U.S., HISD actively recruits and hires NIU graduates.

Zepeda, who earned her B.S.Ed. in Early Childhood Education in May 2017, traveled to Houston on the January 2017 trip. The third-grade teacher at Pugh Elementary School credits that journey for her decision to seek full-time employment there.

“When I came to Texas for Educate U.S., I had never been in such a diverse classroom, so it was definitely the diversity. I’m of Mexican descent, and I loved that there were more students who looked like me, so that was a great factor,” she says.

“I love my students. My students are what motivate me on a daily basis,” she adds. “I’m making those connections and using those connections to help my lower students, those students who have struggling for a while. With love, they’ll be able to better learn and to form a closer connection.”

Aimee Zepda, front and center
Congratulations! Aimee Zepda, front and center.

Pugh, where Latino students comprise 97 percent of the enrollment, is a dual-language school that prioritizes English and Spanish. Zepeda arrived there with the perfect experience: Her student-teaching placement was completed at the Barbour Language Academy in Rockford.

She continues to learn important and relevant lessons in Texas.

“Just because a student isn’t able to respond to you in the language of instruction doesn’t mean that they don’t know the answer,” Zepeda says. “If everybody really understood that concept, it would really impact education around the world.”

Her preparation in the NIU College of Education, meanwhile, remains vital as she creates engaging lessons that cater to the needs of her students and differentiates her instruction for those children who need it.

Zepeda credits Natalie Young, an assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education and her mentor in the Open Doors project, for stressing the importance of connections.

“Professor Young made the greatest impact on my career,” Zepeda says. “Getting to know the kids – that’s more important than anything. Building those relationships with my students is something that’s a priority for me. Before you’re a student, you’re a person, and I want to get to know this person you are.”

While she was shocked to receive the honor – HISD’s 280 schools enroll nearly 210,000 students and employ 11,500 teachers – the recognition makes her happy and proud.

“It’s definitely an accomplishment,” she says. “I really want to continue to become a better teacher. I think there’s room to grow, and I want to challenge myself.”

Jessica Dyra
Jessica Dyra

Dyra, who earned a B.S.Ed. in Elementary Education from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction last May, teaches fourth grade at River Oaks Elementary School.

Unlike Zepeda, Dyra did not participate in Educate U.S. However, she completed her student-teaching with “a really great mentor teacher” at Mark Twain Elementary School in Houston during the Spring 2019 semester.

“I just wanted to try something different,” says Dyra, who has always loved Texas and previously made annual trips to Dallas for cheerleading competitions.

“Reading in my textbooks about how diverse students are, I didn’t really see that in the classrooms I was placed in in Illinois,” she adds. “Coming to Houston, it’s much more diverse. There’s a bigger variety of races and socioeconomic status.”

Mark Twain, like River Oaks, is an International Baccalaureate World School.

“I really liked their approach to education and to learning. They focus on having the students doing inquiry. They’re doing more hand-son projects. They’re finding out their own answers to their own questions and really to anything they’re curious about,” Dyra says.

“My classes at NIU prepared me well. I learned about all the different ways of teaching now – the new strategies, such as flexible seating, using exit tickets, all the practices that are more the new face of education – and I loved having different clinical placements with different grade levels,” she adds.

“I also liked how small our cohort was. We really got to grow and learn together as a group, and it made it more comfortable when we had to work with other groups to share our ideas and debate our stances on certain topics.”

Aimee Zepeda
Aimee Zepeda

Children in Dyra’s River Oaks classroom learn from the teacher while they, in turn, teach her.

“We just get along well, and that’s what makes our classroom such a safe environment. It’s about me showing up every day, being there for my kids and accommodating the students who need extra support,” she says. “I have a lot of students who are struggling. Seeing them put forth the effort to want to learn, and to want to know, and when they finally do, it’s like, ‘Wow. I did that.’ ”

As Dyra draws near the end of her first year, she appreciates her award.

“It’s always an amazing feeling to be rewarded for what goes on behind the scenes that the parents don’t necessarily see,” she says.

“Teachers work so hard. It’s tiring and exhausting, and it’s nothing like I ever imagined, but it is worth it,” she adds. “The kids are so diverse. They each have a different story, and they touch your heart in different ways.”

Jessica Dyra and her River Oaks students.
Jessica Dyra and her River Oaks students.
Aimee Zepda tutors a student through the Open Doors project.
Aimee Zepda works with a student through the Open Doors project.
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