And the “Oscar of Teaching” Award Goes to…
Columbia International University alumna Vanessa Torres is a 2016 winner of The
Milken Educator Award, called the “Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher Magazine. The
Spanish teacher was honored and received a $25,000 prize at an assembly at her
school, Nursery Road Elementary in Columbia, South Carolina. Torres earned a Master
of Arts in Teaching English as a Foreign Language/Intercultural Studies (TEFL/ICS)
from CIU in 2006.
CIU Today asked Torres about the award and the role CIU played in preparing her for
Did you have any idea that you would be receiving the Milken Award?
It was a complete surprise; in fact, I was thinking of another teacher when they were
describing the recipient and was sure it was her! I was paralyzed when they called my
name and had to be literally pushed by my colleague who was next to me. I
still have no idea how or by whom I was nominated.
How did CIU and your TEFL/ICS degree prepare you for your
The TEFL program at CIU prepared me well for my career by giving me the
most up-to-date, research-based approach to language teaching. Moreover,
(the professors) taught us in the same way they expected us to teach our
learners, and had us do immediate application of every skill. During my
ESL internship through CIU, I really grew as a teacher, and after getting my
degree, I immediately got a job teaching ESL in the English Programs for
Internationals (EPI) at the University of South Carolina.
CIU (also) gave me spiritual preparation to enter into this amazing mission field of public education. During my time in class,
chapel, and on a CIU mission trip to Indonesia, God developed in me a heart to love and serve others, by seeking first to
understand their cultural worldview, make learning relevant to them, and persevere despite the many challenges.
What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching?
Seeing students grow over the years in their fluency not only in another language, but another culture. I have seen magic happen
through making Spanish relevant and fun by using games, songs, stories, etc. I have students who are able to retell entire stories
in Spanish and even write their own, and that is beautiful!
It is also amazing to watch my students learn to love people from other cultures, and many tell me about new Hispanic friends
they make in the community, and places they go where they get to use their Spanish outside of the classroom.
In what ways do you see God using you as a public school teacher?
I believe that God has not only given me the gift of teaching, but also the gift of encouragement, and I am called to lift up broken
students and colleagues to the Healer. I try to daily encourage others by writing them cards, sharing with them how I faced my
hardest days in teaching, and praying for and with them.
I also believe that God has called me to help our children learn a healthy respect for authority and empathy for others, in a world
where children are taught that they are the center of the universe. I try to employ heart-focused discipline and lead children to
learn to turn from destructive habits and toward life-giving habits.
Vanessa Torres addresses the student
body of Nursery Road Elementary School
after winning the Milken Award.
(Photos: Milken Family Foundation)