Oscar Juarez and students

Oscar Juarez stands in front of one of his classes at Vance County Early College High School. Suarez has been recognized as the school’s Spotlight Hero.

Editor’s note: We have changed the format of the Vance County Schools Student Spotlight this year to focus instead on the faculty and staff who have worked so hard under extraordinary circumstances to ensure our students are still receiving quality instruction, food and interaction, all while dealing with how the pandemic is personally affecting them, too.

HENDERSON — For Oscar Suarez, teaching Spanish to his students at Vance County Early College High School is more than helping them learn to speak and read the language.

It’s about gaining a broad understanding of world cultures. It’s about finding a place in a complex society. And it’s about becoming complete individuals.

That approach to teaching goes a long way toward explaining why Suarez was selected to be the Early College’s representative in the Heroes Spotlight, a project The Daily Dispatch is doing in partnership with Vance County Schools to recognize outstanding staff members.

In nominating him for the award, Early College Principal Travis Taylor wrote: “Mr. Suarez is a highly committed, caring and skilled teacher. He has a high degree of empathy and compassion for his students and is always willing to go the extra mile. He serves on many occasions as a translator for our Spanish speaking families in not only relaying information to them, but in assisting them with understanding how to better help their children. He is much deserving of this recognition.”

Nancy Wykle, editor and publisher of The Dispatch, congratulated Suarez on his selection, adding, “It’s folks like you who have made extensive efforts to educate our students under circumstances we couldn’t anticipate.”

She noted that in previous years the paper published Student Spotlights to honor outstanding students, but that practice was stymied this year by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, we are recognizing staff members, she said.

In his 20 years as an educator, Suarez has taught students from the primary grades to the university level. Early College presents its own set of challenges, he said. “These kids are very special.” They are motivated and have clear goals. That makes the job of the teacher “easier, not easy, but easier,” he said.

But he adds, “It’s a challenge also because they expect more of you as a teacher.”

He sees learning as a two-way street in which the teacher learns along with the students. “I have grown in my rapport with my students,” he said.

Suarez established a connection between his Early College students and students in his home country of Columbia. “My students practice Spanish. The students in Columbia practice English.”

He began Advanced Placement Spanish classes at Early College because, he said, his students were asking for more challenges and experiences.

Another innovation was a Language Club, in which students are exposed to languages and cultures around the world, not just Spanish.

Before the pandemic, his students participated in Teen Court, a youth-run judicial project in which actual teenage offenders are tried by their peers. He said the experience taught the students how to make decisions about peers who made mistakes.

Suarez has integrated United Nations sustainable goals into his teaching. Studying efforts to end hunger, ensure healthy lives and promote quality education, gender equality, clean water, climate change, sustainable energy and similar aspirations gives his students a world perspective.

But his efforts go beyond academic achievement. The role of the teacher in developing students’ emotional intelligence is very important, he said. “If they don’t know how to handle their emotions, they won’t be successful.”

Suarez, 41, is married. He and his wife have two children. A native of Columbia, South America, he holds a bachelor’s degree in languages and is working on a master’s degree.

Vance County Early College High School was established in 2008 as a partnership between Vance County Schools and Vance-Granville Community College. Classes are held on the community college’s Henderson campus.

The five-year program awards students a North Carolina high school diploma, an associate of arts or associate of science degree and/or one year of college transfer credits.