Desert Vista special education teacher Elaine Padilla gives her all to her students. And this week, she was recognized for her dedication.
Padilla received this month’s Excellence in Education award, a prize from KESZ (99.9 FM) and Rio Salado College that recognizes one outstanding teacher each month. Padilla was surprised with the award and a radio spot at a staff meeting Tuesday morning.
“This is just unbelievable,” she said shortly after winning. “I am floored.”
She was nominated for the prize by student Kristina Mata, who has been in Padilla’s classes for six years. Kristina said Padilla looks after all her students.
“She has a very kind heart,” Kristina said. “She deserves this award. She’s always there for me.”
Padilla has taught special education for 27 years, including 15 at Desert Vista. She originally went to nursing school, but was prompted to seek another degree in special education after getting the chance to work with kids with several disabilities.
And after working with kids at three different schools for nearly three decades, she still loves coming to work.
“Every day is different and exciting,” Padilla said. “Our students and their families are amazing.”
Padilla helps her kids in the classroom, tailoring programs to each of them – for instance, encouraging Kristina to read books around the classroom that are appropriate for her, said Esperanza Mata, Kristina’s mother.
But her work goes beyond the school day. Padilla also takes her own time before school to help Kristina do things like put together a calendar, which in turn helps her reading, Esperanza Mata said.
Kristina could barely read when she entered high school, but now, “we cannot believe how much she’s reading,” Esperanza Mata said. “We’re out in public, and what does she do? She’s reading signs in the grocery store, she’s spelling.”
Padilla has also helped the Matas deal with issues that come up outside the classroom.
”It just seems as though no matter what issue comes up, you can call her and she’s available. She always has a solution or option to handle any situation,” Mata said. “I’ve never heard her say, ‘That’s impossible.’ It’s not in her vocabulary.”
She also makes a point to go to extracurricular activities. Kristina is active in the Special Olympics, and the Matas have seen Padilla at basketball games, kayaking events and other occasions.
“She treats every student like her child,” said Robert Padilla, Kristina’s father.
Padilla’s work with special populations doesn’t stop at the high school. She has taught religious education classes for special needs adults at Tempe’s Holy Spirit Church for 18 years. She’s also a member of the Council for Exceptional Children, which offers workshops, book studies and awards recognizing teachers, support staff, parents and students in Tempe-area school districts.
“Angel” is a word frequently used to describe Padilla for her ability to find the potential in students, said Alyssa Tarkington, chair of the special education department at Desert Vista.
“If it’s in there, she’ll bring it out,” Tarkington said. “She doesn’t stop trying. If that student has the potential to read, she finds it.”
Or, as Kristina Mata put it at the end of the nominating letter she read out loud during the award presentation: “Ms. Padilla, you rock.”