First published in the Oct. 1 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Local educator Lisa Fuentez, a 1st-grade teacher at McKinley Elementary School, was in attendance for the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s 41st annual Teachers of the Year awards banquet in Universal City on Sept. 23 to be honored as one of the top educators in the region.
She wasn’t among the 16 teachers named to move on to the state competition, but Fuentez went home with a smile — the same way all of her students and colleagues see her every day.
“I thought that no matter what happened, I felt so proud about how it went,” said Fuentez, who made it to the top 25 teachers in the county and was in the running to make the top 16. “I was just so happy. … I really feel that being kind, genuine and compassionate really makes the world a better place, and I hope I showed that in my interviews [during the competition].”
Fuentez has continually shown that earnestness in her 11 years working for the Burbank Unified School District, all of them at McKinley, engaging with her students and colleagues daily to build relationships and a sense of family at the school.
“I always want to make sure they know my classroom is somewhere they can be safe, comfortable and honest and really be a true form of themselves,” said Fuentez, a BUSD graduate who attended George Washington Elementary, Luther Burbank Middle School and Burbank High School.
She has her students identify their mood early in the day using a feelings chart, allowing her to understand the children’s mindset and better address their needs that day.
“I really take the time to not just get to know them, but the family dynamics as well,” Fuentez said. “I always tell my kids that we are a big family in this classroom.”
Fuentez makes the same effort for the adults at McKinley, greeting everyone, from administrators to classified employees, and keeping her door open for everyone.
“We often joke that my room is the party room because anyone can come in to talk, vent or anything they need, I’m there,” she said.
The drive to be inclusive was inspired by Fuentez’s experience with BUSD teachers, specifically in 1st grade. She recalls feeling excited when entering the classroom because her teacher, Irene Boelke, always had a smile and was so supportive of her students.
Fuentez even volunteered to pass out papers and put classroom materials away daily.
“I just really loved how much she loved her job,” Fuentez said of Boelke. “And I thought, maybe that is what I want. Since then, I was adamant I was going to be an elementary school teacher.”
After graduating from Burbank High, Fuentez stayed local and attended California State University Northridge to obtain her bachelor’s degree and teaching credential.
In college, she found a familiar face in Joan Baca, a retired Washington Elementary principal who worked at CSUN advising students interested in teaching. Baca recognized Fuentez and helped her score the opportunity of becoming a practice teacher at McKinley.
“I never even knew this school existed,” Fuentez admitted. “My master teacher took me under her wing, and I fell in love with the school. I always say it’s the hidden gem in Burbank. I told myself, ‘I’m going to come back, and I’m going to work here.’ The climate, the colleagues, everything was so special.”
When the opportunity to apply for a job at McKinley presented itself, Fuentez jumped on it and was shocked when she was offered the job.
“To this day, I get phone calls from people asking me how I got into Burbank Unified,” she said. “I’ve always been a part of it. It’s always been a big part of my heart, and maybe it’s because I’m so passionate about it. I really do have a loyalty to Burbank Unified, and I think that’s why I enjoy my job so much.”
That passion, along with her work as an educator, is what earned Fuentez being named the district’s teacher of the year, an honor she is content with and one that will stay with her.
“When [Assistant Superintendent Sarah Niemann] called me and said that they wanted me to represent Burbank, I was elated,” Fuentez said. “I felt that I was really representing the amazing educators that I’m surrounded by. I was so touched that they picked me. … I was a product of Burbank Unified, so I think that it was that extra layer of pride because Burbank is wonderful, and I hope my students can have that same experience I had.”