In less than a year of working as teachers, a University of Houston-Victoria alumna and a student have proven themselves as beloved teachers to their students and as excellent colleagues to their peers.

Jasmine Sharifi, a UHV alumna, and Denise Caldwell, a UHV student in the Victoria Online Initial Certification for Educators Program, have both been named Rookie Teacher of the Year at their respective Katy elementary schools. Sharifi is a first-grade teacher at Peter McElwain Elementary, and Caldwell is a third-grade teacher at Robert and Felice Bryant Elementary.

Both teachers will be considered for the Katy Independent School District Rookie Teacher of the Year award in May. Sharifi and Caldwell were chosen at their schools after either a nomination or application process.

“It is always wonderful to hear about the accomplishments of our students and alumni,” said Rachel Martinez, interim dean of the UHV School of Education, Health Professions & Human Development. “A phenomenal teacher makes a lasting and positive difference in a child’s life, and we are proud to hear that our alumni and students are making a difference in their communities.”

Sharifi is a Houston native and graduated in 2020 from UHV with a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in early childhood to grade 6 core subjects.

“It’s such a shock and honor, and I feel a big accomplishment during a pandemic when everything I prepared for as a teacher got turned upside down,” Sharifi said. “It’s such a nice surprise, and I am so honored that the administration chose me.”

While Sharifi teaches a curriculum of required subjects and strategies, she also teaches her students about how to be good citizens and the importance of being kind. A favorite activity in her class is “Good News Friday,” a time for her students to gather under a disco ball and celebrate an accomplishment or something good that happened to them that week.

“Jasmine has a positive and enthusiastic mindset,” said Euberta Lucas, principal at Peter McElwain Elementary School. “She is full of so much love and energy! Her students are excited to see her every morning. I love that she celebrates all moments in her classroom with a high five, a dance or even a quick phone call home.”

Janelle Bouknight, a UHV assistant professor of literacy education, was happy to hear about the recognition Sharifi received. As a UHV student, Sharifi was enthusiastic about learning how to teach children, she said.

“Jasmine was such a great student and is a great blend of the practitioner and the academic,” Bouknight said. “What I love about her is that she is so energetic and grasps the seriousness of teaching children the skills they will need for later in life. She does well in classroom management, which is what teachers worry about early in their careers. I have no doubt that this award was well deserved.”

Although teaching through a pandemic hasn’t been ideal, Sharifi said her training from UHV in classroom management, literacy and foundations of teaching all came through during the most challenging of times.

“I love my classroom family, and I work with fantastic people,” Sharifi said. “I wake up every day excited to go to work. I’m grateful for my principal for taking a chance on me and hiring me and for giving me my first job. It turned out to be everything I wanted and more.”

For Caldwell, her love of teaching started in 2015 when she was a volunteer for a childcare group for preschool-aged children in Magnolia. Caldwell is an English language arts/reading and social studies teacher. Caldwell is a part of the UHV VOICE program, an online program for people who already have a bachelor’s degree in another area but want to become teachers. She will graduate in May.

From the beginning of Caldwell’s time as a student, it was apparent that teaching was a passion, said Mary Lasater, interim dean of the School of Education, Health Professions & Human Development.

“You can just tell how serious she was about becoming a teacher by the way she participated in class discussions and asked questions,” Lasater said. “We are very proud of Denise. She is skilled and capable, and we are happy that we were able to help prepare her to be an educator. We wish her the best in her career.”

Even though the online learning was a little difficult to navigate, Caldwell didn’t appear to be a novice teacher to other colleagues or parents, said William Rhodes, Robert and Felice Bryant Elementary principal.

“Denise is dedicated and goes out of her way to build a relationship with her class,” Rhodes said. “She makes learning interesting and fun and makes her classroom a magical place to learn. I know it takes a lot of work for first-year teachers to get to that level. It’s amazing to see her teach because she is meant to be a teacher. We are very proud of her.”

Caldwell’s foundation for the school year was making sure that her students were doing well emotionally after a year where families experienced challenges and hardships. Caldwell makes class fun by dressing up as different storybook characters, such as Sherlock Holmes for a mystery book assignment. She was surprised that she was chosen as Rookie Teacher of the Year and is grateful to be a teacher.

“I feel so lucky to walk into a classroom and see my nameplate outside the door and a teacher badge,” she said. “It is the best.”

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