CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Maria Cruz didn’t become an educator to be noticed.
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t stand out.
Cruz, who teaches at Heroes Elementary aboard Camp Lejeune, has been named the Veterans of Foreign Wars the local and district teacher of the year. She will next compete for the national title.
“As teachers we all work hard,” said Cruz, who has spent 38 years teaching in classrooms around the world. “I think we all deserve to be recognized. I know that I put my soul into teaching. It’s my passion and I really love what I do. I like to see the kids grow and I’ve never expected to be publicly recognized. I don’t do it to be honored, I do it to honor the students and give them what they need emotionally and educationally.”
Teachers nominated were broken down into and competed against various grade levels including home school, preschool, elementary, middle and high school. Of those five categories, Cruz was selected as the top teacher and will represent the district as she competes for the national title, which will be announced around June. After the presentation was over, a few teachers stood and congratulated Cruz, citing her prior experiences as the reason she was selected. Some of her prior professional accomplishments they spoke about included her time working in outreach for youths at risk of joining gangs, teen pregnancy prevention, overseeing the home school program in Rota, Spain and her master’s degree in special and general education.
“I appreciate the respect they have given me over the years I have worked with them,” Cruz said. “I want my students to be proud of a teacher who has been recognized. I also want them to look up to me ...to become professionals themselves someday.”
Because of numerous change in duty stations during her husband’s military career, she was taken all over the world from Europe to Asia. So when she tells her story to class it shows her military students that just because you move doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. In telling her story, she said she has brought solace to students in the past and hopes her story will continue to inspire students in the future.
What makes the award so special, she said, isn’t just because her peers and principal nominated her secretly but because the community saw her passion and dedication shine past the gates of the base. Her plans for the future include inspiring new teachers to have passion in the classroom and to be creative because teaching is a 24-hour job and passion is something that truly makes a difference in the classroom, she said.
“I evaluate myself daily as to whether I am making a difference,” Cruz said of her teaching style. “Am I touching lives in a positive way. Am I going to be remembered as a teacher who made a difference and pushed kids to reach their full potential? Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing for them to get the best out of life? Those are the questions I ask every day hoping the answers are yes.”
Lisa Nassar, a fellow third grade teacher who works in the classroom next to Cruz, is constantly taking mental notes about what Cruz does both in and out of her classroom when she interacts with students and other faculty, not to critique her but to learn from her, she said.
“If every teacher was like her it would be truly amazing,” Nassar said. “We would have the best education system around the world.”
Because of her background with special needs children, Cruz, according to Nassar, is a resource for the other teachers because she will guide them and give advice and critiques on their methods so they can better reach the student around their disability.
“I’m happy to see her recognized because she works so hard and there are so many things people don’t see,” Nassar said. “There are all those late night hours, mentoring families and children. There is dedication that is never seen.”
Nominating Cruz was an easy choice, according to Dewanda Sholar, the principal at Heroes Elementary. Part of Cruz’s success, she said is because she can relate to the students because of her experience with the military.
“She’s not the type that would want to be an administrator,” Sholar said. “She’s going to stay right in that classroom because she loves the kids and wants to get better even though she is already really good at what she does.”
Having to sift through piles of nominations, Brian Scarborough, the Post 9133 commander said that Cruz’s nomination package stood out and made it easy to select her as the teacher of the year. While he wishes the VFW could award each and every teacher across the United States, he hopes that they all realize that by recognizing Cruz at the local level, it is their way of saying thanks for all of the hard work teachers put into their classrooms.
“What she does here and on the outside, just loving the kids and assisting with special needs, it just demonstrates a total devotion to the kids,” Scarborough said. “Not only are we, the VFW, here to support our veterans but we also support those who educate the future of America. If you look on the front lines, there are our teachers.”