Buckeye special education teacher Erin Juarez was recognized by a national organization as the Southwest region’s teacher of the year.

Philadelphia-based Special Education Services Inc. bestowed that honor upon her for her work during the 2021-22 school year.

Juarez, who has taught kindergarten through fourth grade special education for four years at Sierra School of Liberty, was nominated for the award by her supervisor for her strong work ethic. She was emotional when she learned that her hard work and commitment to improving her students’ lives had been recognized and validated by SESI.

“I’ve gone above and beyond (in my work) and have really pushed these students more than some have ever been pushed to excel,” she said.

Teaching special education is challenging. Some of Juarez’s students are autistic, others have emotional needs, and still others have disabilities.

“Every kid is different and at different levels of their understanding,” she said. “Every kid can learn. It’s just finding the right way for them to learn.”

While the difficulties of working as a special education teacher may sometimes seem outsized, so too can the intangible rewards of the profession. Reflecting on how she and her colleagues helped a third grade student two years behind in his math skills catch up to his grade level, Juarez cited the selfless satisfaction she and others can take in the accomplishments of young learners.

She loves to “see the pride students get when they see results. … They can go tell their parents what they have achieved.”

Juarez is the first teacher from Sierra to win SESI’s teacher of the year award. The school, which is on the campus of Freedom Elementary School in Buckeye and partners with local school districts, is one of SESI’s 95 member schools in the United States.

Sierra’s model for teaching is rotational. Students work with different teachers at different points of the school day. The learning process is also supplemented by technology-based educational tools. That Juarez would one day be a part of that process was far from predetermined.

After completing her college education, Juarez went to work in the behavioral health field in California. Her work eventually brough her into contact with the field of special education. She recalls recognizing that “this is what I want to do” and then returned to college to get the necessary certification to teach.

Juarez’s role will expand next year to teaching students from kindergarten to fifth grade. She will continue to play a pivotal role in her students’ development — but not alone.

As honored as she is by SESI’s recognition, she is fully cognizant that positive results in special education can only come from the active participation of all parties involved: teachers, students and parents.

“Most people don’t realize how much of a team we are,” she said.