PSJA teacher’s passion to engage students helps her wins humanities award

Only have a minute? Listen instead
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Influenced by the educators and the challenges in her life, Mónica Alvarez Suárez’s devotion to giving students an engaging education, like she once received, is what earned her the prestigious 2024 Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award.

Suárez, a PSJA Memorial Early College High School teacher since 2019, said she went through a roller coaster of emotions when she received a letter in the mail with the Humanities Texas logo during her morning routine with her family.

“I was hesitant but I was so excited and so I opened it and saw the word ‘Congratulations’ and I went completely crazy,” she said. “I was yelling and my family came over like ‘¿Mamá qué pasó?’ and I was like, ‘I won. Creo que gané.’ I had to read it like three times because I couldn’t believe it. It was a very emotional moment for me and for my family.”

The Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Awards recognizes exemplary K–12 humanities teachers. Each year, 12 teachers are selected to receive a $5,000 cash award and an additional $1,000 for their respective schools to purchase humanities-based instructional materials.

Suárez, a migrant from Reynosa, said she came to the Valley as a high school student and attended Hidalgo High School. She would then go on to attend legacy institution University of Texas Pan American and obtained a bachelor’s in communication and a master’s in Spanish Literature. Suárez then went back to receive her second master’s degree at UTRGV in Mexican-American studies.

Monica Suarez, a dual language teacher at PSJA Memorial Early College, carries a wooden pyramid while in her classroom on Monday, June 3, 2024 in Pharr. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

She teaches AP Spanish, Spanish Literature and recently a Mexican-American Studies Dual Language course.

Suárez said she was nominated for the humanities award by one of her mentors, UTRGV Mexican-American Studies professor Stephanie Alvarez.

“One of the reasons why I’m here as an educator is because of her,” she said. “I took a lot of classes with her and one of the classes that I enjoyed was learning and reflective service in the Mexican-American Community. It was not only research but it was a project based learning approach … with all the data and information we collected, we ended up doing a mural (at Mayfield Park in San Juan). The images on it were what the community wanted.”

Heavily impacted by that class, she takes that inspiration and puts it into her own classes and hopes to also engage students on a deeper level.

In her Mexican-American Studies classes, taught in both English and Spanish, Suárez approaches it as an interdisciplinary course using history, poetry, art and other mediums to convey certain themes, messages and events which she said she is getting great feedback from the students.

Monica Suarez, a dual language teacher at PSJA Memorial Early College, talks to her class Monday, June 3, 2024 in Pharr. Suarez was awarded the 2024 Outstanding Teacher of Humanities Award by The Humanities Texas organization. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

“I get to teach about history and then we get to read that same history from a poet’s perspective and then we get to see it in an artistic manner through a mural and then they get to create it,” she said. “Either they write poems, short stories, we even did, like, a collective mural.”

Having several students that are recent migrants, Suárez said those students have told her that her classes make them feel more comfortable in school by being able to speak their native tongue and learn about Mexican and Mexican-American history.

Not expecting any type of celebration until the following school year since that is when the award ceremony is scheduled, she was surprised when her school went all out on congratulating her.

“I was very touched,” Suárez said. “They had Mariachi, they had the cheerleaders. It was amazing, it was a beautiful moment and they caught me completely off guard.”

She said she hopes the $1,000 for the school is used toward the annual Día de los Muertos celebration to continue the tradition.

“We love to do project-based learning and we love to honor our culture and tradition,” Suárez said. “ So Día de los Muertos is a very big and proud tradition that we like to not only showcase here in school but we like to share with the community.”