Craig Middle School’s Vanzo named finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year
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 anything else.
“We live in a technologically driven world,” Vanzo said. “Things are changing every day. I want our students to be part of the solutions to world problems.”
Vanzo’s passion and drive for her students are part of why she’s one of just seven statewide finalists for the Colorado Department of Education’s Colorado Teacher of the Year for 2022.
“I’m really humbled to have received this honor,” Vanzo said. “I have to credit all these amazing teachers in Moffat County. I was lucky enough that the school district has provided me with so many professional development opportunities, allowing me to grow. Leadership has encouraged me, taken me to schools all over the state, to conferences, and in the first couple years I was teaching, I had some powerful mentor teachers, too, that taught me pedagogy.”
Vanzo, 31, has been with the district for nine years, and is in her seventh with Craig Middle School. She started as a fifth-grade teacher before joining CMS to teach sixth, and it was a couple years into her time with the middle school that she was offered the opportunity to bring a new elective to the school.
“We identified a need for STEM education,” Vanzo said, referring to an education acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. “Prior to this there wasn’t a really thorough STEM program. I feel like it’s so important.”
So the engineering program at CMS was born. With it came robotics, 3-D printing, and, most importantly, something the educators call “problem-based learning.”
“It’s all about problem-based,” Vanzo said. “We learn about the engineering design process, they identify problems, brainstorm solutions, prototype solutions, then put it together in a professional presentation. A lot of my teaching is centered around design thinking and problem solving.”
There’s obvious applications to developing a young mind in that way from a holistic standpoint, but there’s also particularly direct uses for these specific skills, and Vanzo is conscious of both.
“There are all these jobs that were created a year ago or five or ten years ago, jobs that will be available when they graduate high school — high-paying jobs,” Vanzo said. “I’m trying to hook their interest there.”
Vanzo’s approach to honing her craft in order to bring her students the best possible experience is special and worthy of recognition, but it’s also not entirely unique within CMS.
“Mrs. Vanzo is being recognized, and she’s a leader in our school in getting more STEM and problem-based learning here,” said CMS principal Sara Linsacum. “But that’s a teaching practice that’s embedded and expected at Craig Middle School across the board.”
That said, to Linsacum, who was assistant principal for a number of years at CMS prior to taking the top job this year, Vanzo’s achievement as a finalist is worthy of note.
“I’m super proud,” she said. “Cristina and I, when I was a teacher, her first practicum was in my classroom, so we have a long history, and the greatest thing about Cristina is she’s willing to make mistakes and try new things. She’s willing to take risks, and, by her doing that, it allows her kids to do that. That’s what sets her apart.”
It’s part of Vanzo’s mindset for teaching. And it’s part of what has her in the position she’s in.
“People ask me, when I started as an engineering teacher, do you have an engineering degree?” Vanzo said. “Nope. I have a master’s of learning technology, but I’m learning alongside my students, and I like that. I’d like to help new teachers in our district have that, too.”
Though relatively young herself, she’s got plenty of years under her belt as an educator, and Vanzo hopes to take that to pay forward her experience and passion to newcomers to the field.
“I’m really passionate about helping new teachers,” she said. “That comes back to me acknowledging how much power and influence mentor teachers had on me as a young teacher. I’m passionate about helping new teachers lesson plan and curriculum plan.”
Part of what gives Vanzo particular joy, she said, is seeing the building she’s called home for years take steps forward as a team.
“Watching Craig Middle School evolve, the culture and climate have improved so much,” she said. “I love where we’ve come; we’ve set goals as a staff, we hold ourselves accountable, we collaborate and push each other to do better. I love working with such amazing teachers.”
Linsacum feels that Vanzo’s recognition — the Colorado Teacher of the Year will be announced in November — shines a light on the good that’s being done in the building and district as a whole.
“We have something very special here,” Linsacum said. “What’s happening in this building, we recognize Craig is going to undergo some big changes, and we’re willing to recognize there’s changes — and how do we prepare our kids to be ready for jobs we don’t even know about? I think we have a gem here, for sure.”
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