OCEANSIDE — A teacher and volleyball coach who has been at Cesar Chavez Middle School since it opened 14 years ago has been named one of San Diego County’s Teachers of the Year.
Xylena “Xye” Sanders has taught special education services to seventh and eighth graders with mild-to-moderate needs at Cesar Chavez Middle School since the school opened during the 2007/2008 school year. Classroom D25 has been her home at the school ever since.
As one of the founding members, Sanders helped create the current culture of Chavez, including its mascot, its colors and its sports.
As a student volleyball player who received an athletic scholarship, Sanders immediately jumped at the opportunity to serve as Chavez’s volleyball coach and has kept the role ever since.
Sanders attended Oceanside Unified School District after she and her family moved to Oceanside when she was 9 years old. In 1998, she graduated from El Camino High School, which is the same school that her students at Chavez attend after graduating from middle school.
During her time teaching, Sanders found her fit in a middle school setting after a student teaching experience with Navajo Nation students.
“It was a wonderful experience,” she said.
Her interest in special education stemmed from her time as a high school student working with students with moderate-to-severe special needs. She recalled one student who would immediately ask someone their birthday as a greeting and then determine exactly which day of the week that birthday was.
“Instead of ‘What’s your name,’ it was ‘What’s your birthday,’ and he could tell you which day that was,” Sanders said. “For me, it was just the question of how does his brain indifference wire?”
Sanders said she is a big believer in helping students succeed through specialized instruction.
“You need specialized, academic instruction to be able to get the information on the path in your brain so it’s something you can make meaning from,” she said.
Sanders tries to explain to her students as well as parents and fellow colleagues that everyone learns differently.
“There are challenges and strengths that we all have,” she said. “I want to teach my students about areas in which our brains are wired differently and that’s O.K., we can still make an impact and grow.”
Students in Sanders’ classes with mild-to-moderate learning disabilities often struggle with attention, audio or visual deficit issues.
For example, one of these students may struggle to find a plot on a graph. Sanders will help in this regard by making connecting dots and highlighting over the pilot so that the students will be able to understand the concept.
Sanders’ goal is to help her students know that they are smart, just in a different way than other students.
“We just have to work to find ways to unlock it so that you are able to prove that you understand what you’re learning,” she said. “That’s the challenge, the puzzle, and the passion I have and why I enjoy teaching in this particular field.”
Sanders is also preparing her students for their futures as young adults through organizational skills. One of her methods is having a signature page on her students’ desks so that they can practice their cursive signatures to prepare for signing future documents like lease agreements and other legal documents that require signatures.
“They need to understand that at ages 12 and 13, I’m thinking about them at 18 and 19,” she said.
Chavez Middle School Principal Jenny Morgan said she couldn’t think of a more deserving recipient of the Teacher of the Year title than Sanders.
Like Sanders, Morgan has been at Chavez since it opened. During that time, Morgan observed Sanders’ relationship with her students and fellow staff.
“She’s a leader across the board,” Morgan said. “She’s there to help any fellow colleague with any instructional strategies.
When teachers were uncertain about how to approach virtual distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanders made tutorial videos to help her colleagues.
“She was like their number one support system,” Morgan said.
Morgan has also observed how Sanders helps her students become comfortable with taking risks while growing and learning in a classroom setting.
“Middle school is a hard time, and she is their number one cheerleader,” the principal said.
Other Teachers of the Year winners include Laura Reyes, of Central Elementary School in the Escondido Union School District; Heather McClain, of James Dukes Elementary School in Ramona Unified; Jacquelyn Jourdane, of San Altos Elementary School in the Lemon Grove School District, and Tiffany Jokerst, of West Hills High School in the Grossmont Union School District.
The five Teachers of the Year were chosen among 33 teachers nominated by the different county school districts. Candidates underwent another application and interview review process by a panel made of former county Teachers of the Year as well as school and county office of education administrators and a Parent Teacher Association representative.
The chosen teachers will represent the county in the California Teacher of the Year program, the winner of which will be announced in October.
While the anxiety over what is to come next is there for Sanders, she is trying to enjoy her moment as a Teacher of the Year.