The youngest of nine, Daniella Rios grew up taking care of nieces and nephews, and she learned early on she was good at motivating children.
“I had a lot of patience. I had a lot of understanding with them,” Rios said, and that’s why she went into teaching. “I just knew I had it in me.”
Now just six years in as an educator, Rios’ passion for the job was recognized this year as she was named the Elementary Teacher of the Year for La Joya Independent School District. She teaches dual language mathematics and English language arts to third-graders at Clinton Elementary in Peñitas.
When Rios was first hired by the school district, she drove 55 minutes each day to school. But it was worth it, she said, because she was in an area where she felt needed.
Rios wanted to make an impact on children, and her school has many low socio-economic students. She wants to be a reason for them to enjoy school and smile.
“I was the first one from my family to graduate with a degree, and I knew the impact that it had on my life, so I know what it can do for these kids,” Rios said.
Clinton Elementary Principal Martin Muñoz said Rios is not only outgoing, but she gets involved outside of the classroom, serving as UIL coordinator at the school, tutoring after school and volunteering on the weekends at the Boys and Girls Club in Palmview.
“She knows that teaching is not an 8-to-5 job,” Muñoz said. “You have to do more than that to get the kids involved.”
To earn the Elementary Teacher of the Year distinction, Muñoz said a teacher at each of the district’s 23 campuses is nominated and has to fill out an application. A district-level committee then does an in-person observation at each campus and chooses an overall winner.
In the classroom, Rios looks for ways to engage students and has found that singing gets their attention. She writes educational lyrics to popular songs to help students understand math concepts. And, with a group out of California called Music Notes, Rios has written songs like “Rounding,” “Part of a Whole,” and Perimeter.
“I tried to find a concept they were having trouble with,” Rios said, adding that her kids, who have limited English-speaking skills, also are singing. “Can you imagine? They don’t realize they’re learning.”
Outside the classroom, Rios is hands-on, one of the only teachers to run around with the children on a water day, blasting and getting blasted with water.
She also does what she can to raise money for field trips and other activities. The children she teaches generally don’t have money to go to movies or on trips during weekends and vacations. Rios brought in a $700 grant to take the children on a field trip.
She started the Box Top Club on campus, raising $1,200 since 2012, and she raised another $240 by partnering with Target. Rios hopes to use that money for an inflatable obstacle course on campus.
And on career day, Rios set up a visit from the Brownsville zoo, bringing in a clown who brought five animals for the children to see.
Being named Teacher of the Year is something Rios has dreamed of achieving. She said it means she’s doing a great job, but she’s not going to slow down.
“Now you have to set higher expectations,” Rios said. “It’s a great honor. I just continue to see what else I can do to help out. I’m not tired of this. I want more of it.”