Carrollton Junior High School Teacher of the Year Vanessa Cataldo poses with one of her classes.
Cataldo: Honoring culture is important when teaching English
Until high school, Vanessa Cataldo saw her bilingual and bicultural self as an anomaly. A native of Puerto Rico, she grew up in a military family, moving from place to place and school to school. It wasn't until she took a high school course called Careers in Education that she figured out her life experience would turn out to be a huge blessing to her and her students.
Cataldo is an ESOL, or English to Speakers of Other Languages, teacher at Carrollton Junior High School. An internship component of the high school course she took opened her eyes to an education opportunity that honors the intrinsic value of multiculturalism.
"With college getting closer, I knew I wanted to major in education but did not know what I wanted to teach," said Cataldo, who was attending her ninth school, Collins Hill High School in Cobb County, when she took the Careers in Education course. "I had an internship at an elementary school for eight weeks and was placed in an ESOL class working with first graders. Mrs. Zakis, the teacher, was Cuban and spoke Spanish. She had been raised bilingual and bicultural like me; it was the first time I had ever had an educator who shared a similar background."
Cataldo said she watched how Zakis leveraged her two languages and culture to create a classroom that celebrated diversity and saw each student’s background as a gift, not a weakness they had to improve upon.
"I left that classroom with two desires," she said. "I wanted to have a multicultural classroom that celebrated diversity, and I wanted to use my bicultural background as an asset to my students."
Cataldo said being a bilingual and bicultural teacher placed her in the unique position of serving her students beyond classroom walls.
"I quickly discovered during my first year as a teacher that the need was great for a Spanish speaker who could communicate with Hispanic students and their families, and this has continued to be true throughout my career," she said. "I have learned that most parents want to be involved in their children’s education but don’t know what to do or how to help. Many are afraid of the language barrier or do not understand the cultural differences."
Cataldo said a universal desire among parents is to be a "mother hen" providing nourishment and warmth for their children, but not being able to communicate with teachers and schools can greatly affect their ability to do so.
"I get a thrill from helping parents and caregivers in this situation," she said. "The relief that floods in their faces when they realize they can be heard and understood without things being 'lost in translation' is priceless. The relationships I have built with my students and their families have granted me a front row seat to understanding how to best teach them and advocate for them."
Cataldo, who entered her 11th year teaching this year, is starting her third year at CJHS. During her short time, she has impressed her peers so much that they voted her to be their Teacher of the Year representative for 2021-2022.
Travis Thomaston, principal of CJHS, notes Cataldo ensures her students not only achieve communicative competence but academic competence as well.
"She is one of those teachers whose influence reaches far beyond the classroom," he said. "Her personal integrity and high moral character serve as a model for all students and teachers. While many educators teach quality lessons, Ms. Cataldo is the lesson for her students."
Thomaston said last Christmas, Cataldo provided Trojan #bilingual T-shirts for her students, making them feel special and included – and cool.
"Mrs. Cataldo not only serves in the role of ESOL teacher, she is a liaison between school and families in our community," said Thomaston. "She is the go-to for connecting our families with our school in regards to relationships. She not only serves our students, but other Spanish-speaking students and families in our community by helping them navigate challenges. Landing this educator two years ago was an absolute grand slam for our school."
Cataldo gets reflective when she looks back on her life and career. She thinks back to when she was a little girl and her mother, whom she calls Mami, used to sing a little song to her in Spanish about a “mother hen” taking care of her baby chicks. Her mother, knowing Cataldo would be the first generation of their family not to grow up in Puerto Rico, was very protective of the culture and was determined her daughter would always cherish it.
"The unintended consequence of being a bilingual and bicultural teacher has been that I became like the hen in the song Mami used to sing to me," said Cataldo. "My greatest joy has been providing warmth to my students through authentic connection, empathy, and creating a safe space for them to be celebrated for their uniqueness. I pray they never forget that they will always have a safe, warm place under my two wings."
Earlier this school year, Niche.com announced its overall assessments of school systems across the nation, with Carrollton City Schools ranking as the eighth best public school district in Georgia. However, a deeper look at the organization’s research also shows its review of districts in six specific categories, including which schools have the best teachers – a known component reflecting educational quality. Carrollton City Schools posted strong results in this segment, earning a rating of ninth best statewide.
To determine the Best Teachers ranking, Niche reviews a variety of metrics to establish its ranking outcome. Thirty percent is based on state assessment proficiency and survey responses on academics from students and parents. Parent/student Niche general surveys on teachers make up 25 percent of the score, followed by teacher absenteeism at 15 percent, teacher salary index at 10 percent, and the percentage of first/second-year teachers at 10 percent. The last considerations are average teacher salary and the student-teacher ratio at 5 percent each.
"Quality teachers are essential to our mission to provide an exceptional experience and education at Carrollton City Schools,” said Dr. Mark Albertus, superintendent.
A former Carrollton High School student wrote a review of the school on the Niche website and said, “All of my years in the system have been great. The teachers seem to be involved in the education of their students and have a willingness to help. The school is very diverse, and I feel as though all the students are respected.”
According to its website, Carrollton City Schools ranks second in Georgia for Most Diverse Districts, seventh for Best Places to Teach, ninth for Best Teachers, and fourteenth for Safest School Districts and Best for Athletes. Carrollton City Schools was compared to 182 public school systems across Georgia.
Niche's 2022 Best School Districts rankings combine rigorous analysis of data from the U.S. and state Departments of Education for factors like academics, teachers, culture & diversity, Niche’s and more with millions of reviews from students and parents about their local schools. To learn more, visit https://www.niche.com/k12/rankings/.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact school events across the state, Carrollton High School is looking forward to continuing its long-standing homecoming tradition this year.
Homecoming festivities will begin Monday, Sept. 27, with activities leading up to Friday, Oct. 1, when the Trojans play region rival South Paulding in Grisham Stadium.
CHS principal Ian Lyle said homecoming is an important event not just for the students — but for the community. Dating back to the 1800s, it is the tradition of welcoming back former students to celebrate their school's existence. Last year, all reunions that traditionally happen during football season were canceled because of pandemic concerns. Many of the reunions have been rescheduled to this year.
"Although a lot has changed over the years at CHS, some things have stayed the same,” said Lyle. “Homecoming is one of the most special events we have every year.”
Lyle also noted the district’s mission to create homecoming excitement at all grade levels — especially when it is time for the parade, which will begin at 1 p.m. on Oct. 1.
"We are lucky to have all of our schools on one campus, so homecoming is truly a districtwide experience, especially for the parade,” he said.
Because of COVID-19 concerns last year, modifications were made to the event for safety. Schools spread students out along the parade route and designated specific areas for community viewing to encourage social distancing.
The change was so well received that the district decided to keep it in place for this year’s parade.
During the pregame will be the sweetheart presentation, followed by kickoff at 7:30 p.m. In addition, the homecoming court will be recognized, including the announcement of the 2021 CHS Homecoming Queen during halftime, along with the charitable giving results.
Developed over a decade ago as a spin on traditional homecoming festivities, the "Gold and Black Give Back" campaign partners each CHS class with grades in the three lower schools to collect specific items for charities. The class with the most donations in terms of dollar value wins the competition and bragging rights until the next homecoming.
Freshmen are partnering with seventh and eighth grades to collect dish and body soap. Sophomores are partnering with the fifth and sixth grades to collect toilet paper. The CHS juniors, prekindergarten, third, and fourth grades are collecting toothbrushes/toothpaste. The senior class is partnering with kindergarten, first, and second grade to collect shampoo and conditioner. The public is encouraged to contribute by dropping off items at any of the schools.
For the latest updates on 2021 homecoming, go to
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