Devoted ELL kindergarten teacher sees empathy and flexibility as keys to success
2017 Charter School Teacher of the Year: Bonnie Weppner
By Jamar Younger
Bonnie Weppner believes her career has come full circle since she began teaching in 1974.
At the time, Weppner taught English Language Learners and migrant farm workers in Austin, Texas, many of whom were the first non-English speakers allowed to attend public school.
Now, she is working with kindergartners at Pioneer Preparatory School: A Challenge Foundation Academy who are similar to her first students from more than 40 years ago, trying to learn English while adjusting to the rigors of elementary school and, for some, living in a new country.
The veteran ELL teacher has devoted most of her life to educating non-English speakers, developing an approach that relies on empathy, kindness and love.
That approach has endeared Weppner to both her students and their families.
It’s also the reason she was been named the 2017 Arizona Public Charter School Teacher of the Year.
“My goal is to be considered a part of their families because I love their children,” she said. “I find myself very often being a parent to the parent, but that’s okay because I’m a part of their family and they’re not afraid to ask for help.”
Weppner takes a flexible approach to teaching, adjusting her usage of language patterns based on the needs and abilities of her students.
She recognizes the value of developing bilingual students and how those language skills can increase her students’ opportunities for success.
“A lot of them don’t have anyone to speak English to them at home, so this is it. And that’s where the intensity for me comes in, providing a program that’s going to get them as far as they can go, as fast as they can go,” she said. “They’re the ones who are going to get the best jobs. I want them to compete on an even level with everybody else.”
Weppner’s influence expands beyond the classroom, as she works closely with the parents to help create a structure for her students.
“I also teach the parents how to give consequences and how to be caring and loving, but still make sure boys and girls follow different guidelines of being kind, friendly and empathetic,” she said.
Gladys Rodriguez’s son, Eric, didn’t know how to write his name when he entered Weppner’s kindergarten class.
Now, he can read, write and identify all of the letters, Rodriguez said in Spanish.
“She has a lot of patience with her students. I didn’t think my son would learn so much because he’s restless, but she knows how to teach and has a lot of experience with kids,” Rodriguez said.
As a veteran educator, Weppner still maintains a healthy enthusiasm for her job, students and coworkers at Pioneer.
“She approaches every day like it’s this brand new experience. She’s not jaded by all the things she’s taught or the years she’s spent teaching. It’s actually has crystallized her beliefs and feelings,” said Jarret Sharpe, director at Pioneer.
Weppner credits her administrators and fellow teachers for helping to fuel her passion.
“I don’t consider this about me; it takes a team,” she said. “All of us have to work together.”
Meet the 2017 Charter Award Winners
Reid Traditional Schools’ Painted Rock Academy is a K-8 back-to-basics charter school serving 612 students in north Phoenix. The high performing public charter school sets a high academic bar for students, and believes – given the right tools – all students can achieve success.
Sara Maline Bohn is the principal at Arizona School for the Arts, a 5-12 charter school serving 850 students in Phoenix. Through her mission driven decisions, Sara champions success and growth for all students and teachers and has earned the respect of the entire community.
Suzanne Drakes is the Assistant Executive Director at AAEC Early College High Schools, a network of six charter schools serving 1,700 students. Suzanne is often seen on school campuses, working with principals and teachers to determine the academic and building needs of each school.
Bonnie Weppner is an ELL kindergarten teacher at Pioneer Preparatory School: A Challenge Foundation Academy, a K-6 charter school serving 580 students in Phoenix. Bonnie helps scholars realize their language potential in English, while still embracing their heritage.