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South Valley Journal

Assistant principal of the year is a role model for students, colleagues, latinos

Mar 02, 2021 12:47PM ● By Jet Burnham

Students feel valued and understood by Yajaira Martinez. (Photo courtesy of Yajaira Martinez.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Yajaira Martinez’s inspiring story began when she was a failing student, who didn’t learn to read until the third grade and who thought she wasn’t smart. What she has learned since then about education and possibilities—as a student, an educator and a Latina—is what earned her the praise and respect of students, parents and colleagues, and this year’s Assistant Administrator of the Year Award, given by the Jordan Association of Elementary School Principals.

“Yajaira holds all the values of a competent and successful leader,” said Janae Young, a teacher at Bluffdale Elementary. “She has superb communication skills, is dependable, has initiative, uses discretion when needed, can adapt to difficult situations and works with a high value of professionalism. She is warm, has a supportive nature, works well with others, and respects others. She definitely deserved the vice principal of the year award. She is an inspiration of what a true educator and administrator should be.” 

It was the influence of two of her high school teachers that opened Martinez's eyes to claim a future she never thought could be hers. She went to college and became a teacher so that she could do the same for other kids.

“I just want to be that example to kids that don't feel like they have a way out or a way to break the cycle,” Martinez said. “I just want them to be able to look at me and relate to me and see someone that looks like them, and see that we can be successful, and that school and education is the key.”

Martinez began her career as a teacher at David Gourley Elementary in Kearns, where many of her Hispanic students were struggling.

As she shared her own experiences and successes, her students were motivated to meet the high expectations she set for them. She noticed a big improvement, especially in her Hispanic students’ attitudes about education. Their parents also began to be more involved in their children’s education and more comfortable volunteering in the classroom, knowing Martinez understood them, linguistically and culturally.

“I noticed what a difference I was making in the classroom and I just thought to expand from there, if I can,” Martinez said. “If I can make a difference for 36 fifth-graders, what would it be like for an entire school, to be that role model for kids that look like me or that have struggled in school?”

Martinez currently splits her time as assistant principal at Terra Linda Elementary in West Jordan and Bluffdale Elementary in Bluffdale, where she takes a caring, individualized approach to motivate students.

“I think her biggest strength is her ability to build a strong rapport and relationships with students,” Terra Linda Elementary Principal Karen Gorringe said. “She's just incredible and very relatable to the students. She's so genuine and humble.”  

When a fourth grader was feeling anxiety about coming to school this year, Martinez invited the student to spend a few minutes with her each morning until she felt ready to go to class.

“She was a friendly face for my daughter to check in with every day until her anxieties were lessened,” said the girl’s mother. “She was so encouraging and supportive—for me, as a mom, and also for my child, as a student. She checked in on my daughter during school and messaged me to let me know how she was doing.”

Another parent, Samantha Estrada, also gets regular, reassuring texts about how her two special needs sons are doing when Martinez checks on them in their classrooms or chats with them in the cafeteria or at recess.

“She's always communicating with parents a lot about how their kids are doing,” Estrada said. “She's so nice with the kids. They love her a lot. I'm so happy my boys go to that school because of her. She is always there for my kids.”

Estrada appreciates that Martinez is willing to provide translation and support at school meetings.

“She is always there with me, helping resolve all my questions to get the best IEP for my kids,” she said. “Whenever I need her, she's always there by my side.”

Estrada said Martinez gives that same personalized attention to everyone.

“She is always willing to help everybody,” Estrada said. “She’s always there for every single parent.” 

One of Martinez’s favorite parts of her job is talking with students, especially those who’ve been sent to her office.

“In their minds they are the bad kids, the troublemaker and then they've almost taken on that role,” Martinez said. “So being able to really get to know them and talk to them and have them believe in themselves as something else besides that, that's my highlight—being able to change those behaviors or that motivation in school.”

When a new student was sent to her office for behavior problems, he thought he was in trouble. Martinez just listened, empathized and invited him to come talk with her anytime.

“He was amazed that she cared that much,” said Shandi Owen, the boy’s teacher.

Her colleagues appreciate that Martinez is an exceptional role model for struggling students.

“She has accomplished much in her life and she fought against all the odds to get an education,” Owen said. “She is helping give all students encouragement and the will to work hard and accomplish their goals in education and life.”

Martinez utilizes her position to help Latino students and parents feel valued. At Terra Linda, where 38% of students are Latino, she invites middle school students from Latinos in Action to provide support and mentorship to young Latino students, she helps Spanish-speaking parents feel welcome in the schools by translating when needed, and she connects refugee and homeless families with community resources. She also serves on the Jordan School District BIPOC Diversity Advisory Committee.

As assistant principal, Martinez is also an example and mentor to teachers. Her colleagues said she is approachable, easy to talk to and happy to provide assistance or resources to make their jobs easier.

“She holds high expectations for herself and those around her and encourages us to grow and improve,” said Shelly Lloyd, a curriculum coach at Terra Linda Elementary. “She listens to our suggestions and considers them when making decisions.”

Martinez regularly observes teachers and provides feedback, always including comments of praise in addition to suggestions for improvement. She also occasionally leaves notes of encouragement and validation for teachers. 

Young was just starting her second year of teaching when Martinez first stopped by her classroom to observe.

“She didn't say much when she was in my class, but what she left for me on my desk was exactly what I needed,” Young said. “She wrote me a little inspirational note that I hold dear to my heart. She gave me that little reassurance that I was meant to be a teacher.”

Young is inspired by Martinez’s approachable and positive manner.

“I don't think that I have ever heard a negative thing come out of her,” she said. “She is always looking at the brighter side of things. No matter the situation, she will always lead with positivity.”

Martinez is also a great resource for teachers who want to understand cultural differences and the reason for the beliefs and behaviors of their Latino students and their parents. She suggests adjustments to instruction, context or wording that would make it easier for students with a different vocabulary background to understand.

District Culture and Diversity Specialist Yan’tu Barber said just having Martinez as a co-worker can influence teachers to see their students of color in a different way.

“Yajaira has one of the most amazing personal stories ever,” Barber said. “And that gives the staff inspiration that, I might have a kid that's a little rough right now or maybe not reading at grade level or maybe not as successful as I think they should be, but it doesn't mean that I should give up on this kid. It doesn't mean I should lower expectations for this kid. I've still got to continue to push this kid, because one day, this kid may turn out to be the next Yajaira Martinez!”

When Gorringe retires at the end of this school year, Martinez will replace her as the principal at Terra Linda Elementary.

Estrada was thrilled with the news.

“I’ve never met a principal like her,” Estrada said. “I know she's going to help more families.”

As a full-time principal, Martinez plans to continue motivating students, supporting teachers and encouraging more diverse representation in parent volunteers, professional learning committees and the school community council.

Bluffdale Elementary Principal Cindy Tingey is confident that Martinez will do well in her new position. 

“I believe what makes her a really great administrator is that she is a genuine individual,” Tingey said. “She speaks her mind in a kind way and there is no speculating or reading between the lines. What you see is what you get and what we get is a talented, compassionate and student-centered individual that only wants to make those around her better.”