By Karen Billing
Del Mar Heights Elementary School kindergarten teacher Gina Vargus has been named the Del Mar Union School District Teacher of the Year, praised for her dedication as a “creative teacher who thoughtfully guides her students to reach their optimal potential.”
Vargus found out about her honor at a surprise staff meeting with District Superintendent Holly McClurg, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Tim Asfazadour and Principal Wendy Wardlow.
“I was really shocked, I didn’t expect it all,” Vargas said. “There are so many amazing teachers in this district and I was blindsided by it.”
She came back to her classroom with a bouquet of flowers and her sweet kindergartners thought the flowers were the prize.
Vargus has been a teacher for 23 years, spending all but one year of her career in the Del Mar district. She taught her first year in Pemberton, New Jersey, before moving to San Diego.
At Del Mar, Vargus started in the childcare center at Del Mar Hills Academy and then went on to teach kindergarten and first grade at Del Mar Heights, Ashley Falls and back to the Heights again.
Vargus really enjoys teaching the kindergarten set because of the students’ love of learning at that young age.
“Every day they’re excited to learn something and they’re so enthusiastic,” Vargus said.
Vargus’ classroom, which enviably comes with an ocean view from the back window, is stuffed with activities — books, blocks, outfits for dress-up. A unicycle was parked in front of the colorful carpet last week — no Vargus doesn’t ride, she just brought it in as a prop to teach the letter “U.”
Her favorite thing to teach in kindergarten is reading.
“Kids come in still learning to identify letters and letter sounds, and at the end of the year they’ve unlocked the key to reading and understanding that letters make words,” Vargus said. “It’s just fascinating. You’re giving them all the tools and their minds make all the connections and that’s just amazing.”
In Vargus’ classroom, she also places a heavy emphasis on character development.
“It’s equally as important to send really nice, kind children to first grade as it is to send good readers and children with grasps of mathematical concepts,” Vargus said.
She also stresses the development piece — giving children the freedom and the time to learn at their own pace, to be independent and to enjoy the occasional afternoon dress-up session.
“It’s important for parents to remember to let children make mistakes and grow from them. I think it’s our inclination to do for children what they could do for themselves,” Vargus said.
She points to a sign on the back door of her classroom that says “fostering independence” and reads that after the 100th day of school, children are expected to unpack their own bags and ready themselves for the day without their parents’ help.
She encourages her children to be independent — explore, discover, try things, go ahead and make a mistake.
“Mistakes are just an opportunity to try again,” Vargus said, noting there is much to be learned in the experiences of mistakes, good advice for people of any age.
In addition to her teaching duties, Vargus has also taken on a leadership role this year as the president of the Del Mar California Teachers Association (DMCTA). She’s held the title since February and it has been a busy few months.
Vargus, who served as vice president last year of the DMCTA, said it’s important that the teachers understand the bigger picture, from the district’s standpoint and not just the teachers’ viewpoint from the classroom.
“The teachers and the district all have to work together as a team to educate kids,” Vargus said. “We all need each other.”
Vargus said she is very happy to be teaching at the Heights, even if she never slows down enough to sit at her desk and enjoy the view. She especially enjoys working with the “kindergarten team,” a group that has worked together for about 10 years and Vargus says runs like a well-oiled machine. They all bring their individual strengths to form a strong team that is constantly collaborating.
“Del Mar Heights is an amazing place, I feel like they’re my second family. The staff is so supportive of each other and so positive,” Vargus said. “The district, as a whole, everyone is very, very dedicated to excellence and it’s an atmosphere of everyone wanting to continue to learn the craft of teaching and to keep growing as learners and teachers.”