Henrico’s Top Teachers – Alexandra Mendez-Zfass

While some might point to the challenging situations many Highland Springs E.S. students face at home as reasons why they may struggle to succeed academically, fourth-grade teacher Alex Mendez-Zfass seeks points of common ground in order to ensure that they do. And she calls upon her own at-times curious academic struggles as a reminder that there’s more to every student than meets the eye.

Though she achieved mostly high grades overall at the Collegiate School, they came with much difficulty, many test re-takes and despite poor writing grades that resulted in frequent meetings with teachers.

“My fourth-grade teacher was very instrumental in building up my confidence and making me realize that my brain was special the way it was wired. That gave me the confidence to work through it.”

It wasn’t until an auto accident years later and the subsequent series of tests that Mendez-Zfass learned she was dyslexic.

“It was such an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” she recalled. “It was like, ‘Oh, thank you – I get it!’ It was empowering to find out, but it was also, ‘Ok, nothing’s wrong with me and this is just something that I’ll work with.”

Though she entered the University of Virginia “100 percent convinced” she was going to become an attorney, she traded that goal for the idea of a career in social work, helping children.

Upon graduation, though, she felt that was a better way to address children who had problems.

“I wanted to be the solution so there wasn’t a problem,” she said. So she became a teacher.

She believes that she found her destiny at Highland Springs – though it hasn’t come easily.

“I walked in there Day One [in 2012] thinking I was going to change their world and they were going to love me, and that wasn’t the case,” she recalled with a laugh. “We ended up having a great year, but they kind of taught me that where we start is not going to be where we finish.”

Finding ways to reach children who come from troubled upbringings, as some at Highland Springs do, didn’t come with an instruction manual.

“There are no classes on how to be a teacher and a mom and a therapist and a friend,” she said. “You’ve got to learn it on the job.”

But she’s proven a quick study, just the same.

“Mrs. Mendez goes above and beyond to reach every single one of her students,” a parent nominee wrote. “She nurtures not only their academic success, but their social and emotional growth as well. Students in Mrs. Mendez’s class are greeted each day with a hug and a smile, and she is their cheerleader as well as their teacher throughout the school year. She provides holistic support so that all students feel comfortable, safe, and able to learn in her classroom.”

Said Mendez-Zfass: “All my kids really just want someone to love them, to relate to them, to structure their day, to be consistent with them. If you can tap into that early in the beginning of the year and have them trust you and feel safe with you, then they will trust that your decision, good or bad, however consequential, is the right one.

“Even the toughest kids from the roughest backgrounds want that love, want that structure. If you can give that to a child, you can get anything out of them.”

That approach helped earn her the Henrico County Public Schools’ First Year Teacher of the Year Award in 2013. Though she is currently out on leave while she awaits the birth of twin boys sometime this summer – and though she will miss all of the 2015-16 school year as well – she’s already discussed her future with Highland Springs Principal Shawnya Tolliver.

“I told her it’s Highland Springs or bust for me,” she said. “I cannot see myself anywhere else.

“I can’t leave the impact that I hope that I’m making on my kids. I always say, on Day One, ‘You’re my student and I love you, and that will never change. I mean that with every molecule in my being. They don’t believe me on Day One, but by the end of school, they believe me. I can’t leave knowing that there’s more students who need to hear that.”
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June 2017

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The 4th annual Basketball Skill Development Academy returns to Varina High School June 19-22. The camp, directed by Coach Andrew Lacey, Varina’s head men’s basketball coach, is for rising third through ninth graders (ages 7-15). The academy will focus on individual player development, teamwork, court awareness, basketball knowledge and sportsmanship. Campers will be divided into different divisions and will compete within their own division unless otherwise requested. Hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. Tuition is $60. The first 50 campers to register will receive a free gift. For details, call Coach Lacey at 226-8700 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). To register, visit http://tinyurl.com/2017BasketballAcademyForm. Full text

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Henrico's Top Teachers

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