Credit: Joshua Curry Photography, Courtesy of Sonia Águila
Sonia Águila teaches second grade at Canalino School in Carpinteria.

When Sonia Águila was in high school, her school counselor told her she didn’t think college was for her, because she was not fluent in English. It would be better, the counselor said, if she found a job to help her parents.

“I cried for a few days,” Águila said, “and then I signed up for college.”

Águila attended community college, then UC Santa Barbara, and eventually obtained a teaching credential and a master’s degree in education.

She was just named the National Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the National Association for Bilingual Education. Last fall, she was named teacher of the year by the California Association for Bilingual Education.

Águila teaches second grade in a dual-language immersion program at Canalino School in Carpinteria, a town in Santa Barbara County, on California’s central coast. This is her 25th year teaching.

“A lot of kids finish high school and don’t go to college because they think it’s expensive, they can’t afford it. I went for free. That’s my goal now, to inspire people and hopefully they can follow their dream and go to college,” Águila said.

Ever since Águila was very young, she wanted to be a teacher. She remembers lining up her dolls on the couch when she was 5 years old and pretending to teach them. Born in Santa Barbara, Águila moved to Mexico with her parents when she was 5 because her grandfather was sick.

When she returned at 11, she said the extent of her English was knowing how to count to 10.

During a baking lesson in home economics class, Águila said a teacher told her to wash the dishes rather than bake with other students because she didn’t speak English.

Still, Águila persevered, going to the library every day to read as much as she could and learn English. In high school, she became salutatorian and gave her graduation speech in English and Spanish.

Six years ago, Águila helped her district, Carpinteria Unified, start a dual language immersion program, where she teaches now. Dual language immersion programs teach all students in English and another language, in this case, Spanish. The goal is for all students to be able to speak, read and write in two languages.

“It doesn’t feel like I’m working,” Águila said. “I’m singing in Spanish and singing in English and making arroz con leche.”

Águila said she strives to show her students that “it’s wonderful to be bilingual, bicultural, biliterate.”

“It’s wonderful when I see their eyes light up and they tell me, ‘Oh I get it! I know what that means’ or when I hear them translating for their peers,” Águila said.

Águila said one student used to throw things and run out of her classroom, saying he hated school. She began to invite him to have lunch with her. Knowing he liked dinosaurs, she brought dinosaur coloring books for him. She realized that he couldn’t read or write.

“Little by little he started coming around. After we became friends, he started to learn. That was a big reminder that you need to have a strong relationship with students. That comes first before learning. As a new teacher, that was hard for me to swallow. I wanted kids to sit down and listen and finish their work,” Águila said.

The principal of Canalino School, Jamie Persoon, said that Águila is an “exceptional” leader with “very effective instruction” for all students, including students who are struggling and those who are excelling.

Photo courtesy of Sonia Águila

Águila’s students recite this poem every morning.

“She has a pretty substantial group of students who have exceeded standards, so she’s provided a lot of enrichment and advancement in giving them additional assignments that extend their learning. I really appreciate her efforts,” Persoon said.

Águila’s focus on social-emotional learning also stands out for Persoon.

“They do a mantra in Spanish every morning about believing in yourself, that they have a superpower being bilingual, that they are smart and valued and loved,” Persoon said. “The students really believe in themselves, and it increases their self-esteem and their sense of self-worth. That really helps them move along.”

Lorena Esparza said her daughter Génesis has made a lot of progress in Águila’s class.

“She was very shy at first. She started the year speaking mostly in Spanish, and the teacher said, ‘Don’t worry, in a couple of months, she will start reading in English.’ And now she’s fluent in both languages,” Esparza said.

Águila also hosts a bilingual radio show for children called “Festival Infantil.” She plays children’s songs, reads stories, does multiplication games and gives parenting tips on air.

She is continuing her education now, with an online doctoral program through the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM.

Águila said becoming national bilingual teacher of the year is a “dream come true.”

“That 5-year-old me who used to play with her dolls would be very, very proud. It’s been amazing,” Águila said.

Águila also serves as a mentor teacher for students working on their teaching credentials through UC Santa Barbara. She said she has seen many new teachers feel discouraged, especially after the pandemic, and she tries to encourage them.

“They’re making a difference. I want them to see that and feel valued, especially if they speak two languages,” Águila said. “Being bilingual, that’s a superpower.”

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