Like so many of her most passionate peers, Cristina Vanzo sees the children she teaches as the future.
For Vanzo, who teaches engineering at Craig Middle School, preparing her students to be ready for that future is as much a part of the job as it is anything else.
“We live in a technology driven world,” Vanzo said. “Things change every day. I want our students to be part of the solutions to global problems.
Vanzo’s passion and drive for her students is part of the reason she is one of the seven statewide finalists for the Colorado Department of Education’s Colorado Teacher of the Year for 2022.
“I am truly honored to have received this honor,” said Vanzo. “I have to thank all of these amazing teachers in Moffat County. I was fortunate that the school district offered me so many professional development opportunities, allowing me to grow. Leadership encouraged me, took me to schools all over the state, to conferences, and in the first two years of teaching, I also had powerful teacher mentors who taught me the pedagogy.
Vanzo, 31, has been in the district for nine years and is in his seventh with Craig Middle School. She started as a fifth grade teacher before joining CMS to teach sixth grade, and it was a few years after entering college that she was offered the opportunity to bring a new elective course to school.
“We have identified a need for STEM education,” said Vanzo, referring to an education acronym which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. “Before that, there wasn’t a really comprehensive STEM program. I feel like it’s so important.
This is how the CMS engineering program was born. With it came robotics, 3D printing and, more importantly, something educators call “problem-based learning”.
“Everything is based on the problems,” said Vanzo. “We learn the technical design process, they identify problems, brainstorm solutions, prototype solutions, then put them together in a professional presentation. Much of my teaching focuses on design thinking and problem solving.
There are obvious applications to developing a young mind in this way from a holistic perspective, but there are also particularly direct uses for these specific skills, and Vanzo is aware of both.
“There are all these jobs that were created a year or five or ten years ago, jobs that will be available after they graduate from high school – well-paying jobs,” Vanzo said. “I’m trying to get their interest in it.”
Vanzo’s approach to honing his craft in order to provide his students with the best possible experience is special and worthy of recognition, but it is also not entirely unique within CMS.
“Ms. Vanzo is recognized, and she is a leader in our school to get more STEM and problem-based learning here,” said CMS Director Sara Linsacum. “But it’s a teaching practice. which is integrated and expected at Craig Middle School at all levels. “
That said, for Linsacum, who was Deputy Director for several years at CMS before taking on the top position this year, Vanzo’s achievement as a finalist is noteworthy.
“I’m super proud,” she said. “Cristina and I, when I was a teacher, her first internship was in my class, so we have a long history, and the best thing about Cristina is that she is ready to do making mistakes and trying new things. She is willing to take risks and by doing this it allows her children to do so. This is what sets her apart. “
It’s part of Vanzo’s mindset for teaching. And that’s part of what puts her in the position she is in.
“People ask me, when I started as an engineering professor, did you have an engineering degree? Vanzo said. “Nah. I have a masters degree in learning technology, but I learn alongside my students, and I love it. I would love to help new teachers in our district have that too.
Although a relatively young herself, she has many years under her belt as an educator, and Vanzo hopes to use this to pass on her experience and passion to newcomers to the field.
“I am really passionate about the idea of helping new teachers,” she said. “It comes back to me to recognize the power and influence that teacher mentors had over me as a young teacher. I am passionate about helping new teachers plan their course and curriculum.
Part of what gives Vanzo special joy, she said, is seeing the building she has lived in for years take steps forward as a team.
“Looking at the evolution of Craig Middle School, the culture and the climate have improved so much,” she said. “I love where we’re from; we set goals as staff, we hold ourselves accountable, we collaborate and we push each other to do better. I love working with such amazing teachers.
Linsacum believes that the recognition of Vanzo – Colorado’s Teacher of the Year will be announced in November – highlights the good that is being done in the building and the district as a whole.
“We have something very special here,” said Linsacum. “What’s going on in this building, we recognize that Craig is going to go through big changes, and we’re ready to recognize that there are changes – and how do we prepare our kids to be ready for jobs that we do not even know? I think we have a gem here for sure.