Award-winning ESL teacher inspires students to look to their futures

Hispanic Heritage Month

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Fulton High School’s English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, Carmen Esparza, is this year’s winner of the Latino Community Leader Award from Centro Hispano de East Tennessee’s Latino Awards Gala.

Her name may be recognized in the Latino community along with the recent award, but, Esparza asserts that the recognition truly belongs to the whole community, including the school at which she teaches.

“It’s the recognition of the whole community that we do here,” she says. “I didn’t know why it was granted to me , when obviously, it’s the work that we do as a school – including counselors, including teachers, the support from the administration, and the help of the community to welcome these kids, to tell them the importance of education in their lives how life education can change lives…. to get them a better life, more opportunities in life.”

Teaching is her life’s work and her ambition is to see her students succeed in their lives outside of the classroom.

There is more to her class than learning English. Esparza and her students have created a culture that stems from not only similar journeys, but also from authentic connections.

“We have become a culture… I have been a teacher all of my life. Actually it’s the only thing that I’ve done. I’m not a good cook, or anything. I’ve devoted my life to serve those students. That’s what I like to do. To show the kids what possibilities they have through education, through hard work and ethics.”


She often tells her students to look to their futures; assuring them in the present moments spent working hard in her classroom that what they do now will impact that future.

“I tell my kids that I hope that in a couple of years, I see you are being a successful professional – that’s my paycheck,” she says. “When I see that you are doing a great job, that you are a positive role in this society, that you contribute for this country to be a bigger and better country – it’s already great, it’s already good, but everything everybody has room to be greater. That’s my paycheck. That’s when I feel really proud.”

School is not always easy for students, especially if English isn’t a first language.

Fulton High School has more than 200 students whose first language is Spanish. Many are from Honduras or Guatemala. Esparza helps these students with a mixture of tough love and empathy.

“I think connecting with them besides culture, besides language – it’s offering the opportunities to understanding where they come from, and knowing where they need to be,” she said.

It’s not all about just the English language, though.

These students often need to learn how to function in school, using English as a tool and to learn about different subjects including math, social studies and science.

(Photo: WATE)

They also have help with adjustment through the Latino Student Success Coalition, which is an initiative that connects them with educators, counselors, administrators and community leaders in order to share resources and develop life skills, youth leadership and success in education.

Esparza is an active voice and organizer with the Coalition outside of her classroom. She wants to see her students truly love the success in learning a new language and learning to function in life using that language.

When these students graduate from high school, that means the world to their teacher.

Esparza says she often gets emotional from how proud she is of her students: “When I see them graduating… the first step has been stepped… from now on, it’s like a plant, like a big tree, growing, growing, and that’s what I love to see, in my kids.”

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