Amid an excited crowd at the Dalton High football game, Dalia Santiago was presented with the 2021 Tom Jones Educator of the Year Award. Santiago has taught at Dalton Public Schools for 24 years and is best known in the community as a leader in multicultural education. Trisha Bethel, daughter of the late Tom Jones, along with other family members presented the award.
The Tom Jones Educator of the Year Award recognizes educators in Dalton Public Schools who have made significant contributions in the education of children in Dalton and who symbolize excellence in teaching. Candidates are chosen based on their relationship with students, accomplishments, relationships with parents and their relationship with their community.
"As a teacher, I need to know how my students feel and recognize their strengths and weaknesses," Santiago said. "Each student is unique and has specific skills and talents. Those skills and talents should be utilized to overcome their weaknesses."
Santiago began her career in Dalton in 1997 as part of the Georgia Project in—a teacher exchange program focused on serving the Hispanic student population—teaching Spanish speaking children. Santiago worked at City Park School for 18 years as an English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher.
In 2018, Santiago moved to teaching at Dalton Middle School. Currently, Santiago is a first-grade teacher of a dual language immersion class at Westwood Elementary.
"My job is to teach math and science in Spanish while my English partner teacher teaches language and social studies," Santiago said.
Santiago said she believes open communication is key for student success, including providing opportunities for parents to connect with teachers.
"Parents feel comfortable speaking the same language and having someone who knows their culture," Santiago said. "Since most of my students were Hispanic, I ate lots of delicious food and had extended family conversations."
While the pandemic changed the interactions between parents and teachers, forcing parent-teacher conferences online, Santiago continued to seize each opportunity to make meaningful connections with her students and their parents.
"Parent conferences were very different last year," Santiago said. "But, I am happy to say that my English partner teacher (Mrs. Chitwood) and I had a 100% attendance with Zoom conferences."
In addition to online meetings and conferences, Santiago updates parents through a variety of communication channels including an Instagram account, a Facebook page, a weekly email and a daily folder.
"Parents and teachers have to be one team," Santiago said. "That team is [saying] 'the children are number one.' We all work together to support our young generation."
Santiago has also served her students by inviting parents and advanced Spanish speakers to read to students on Zoom.
"It is very important to encourage students to listen to Spanish not only at home but also in all different places," said Santiago.
In 2019, Santiago helped organize the first International Conservation Symposium at Dalton State College with Carmen Flammini. Together, they organized for two professors from Mexico to speak with Santiago's students.
"The idea was to generate a positive impact on our students about creating an action plan to help our environment and to motivate the students to continue learning Spanish," Santiago said.
This year's finalists included Miguel Gonzalez, The Dalton Academy; Mary Kiker, Brookwood School; Melanie Lovingood, City Park School; Stephanie Redding, Westwood School; Carol Satterfield, Hammond Creek Middle School; Amanda Swinney, Westwood School; and Hannah Talley, City Park School.
The award is named in memory of Tom Jones, a prominent Dalton businessman who served on the Dalton Board of Education for 26 years and was chairman from 1967 to 1986. The award was started in 1987. Jones, who was the co-founder of J+J Flooring Group, was a native of Dalton and a product of Dalton Public Schools.