A passion for empowering individuals guided Lisa Vazquez’s teaching career throughout a broad range of schools and subjects. Her diverse skill set and varied teaching experiences enabled her to develop novel, “outside-the-box” techniques for empowering students and encouraging them to take on challenges in creative ways. This spirit was evident in one of Vazquez’s more creative lessons, which challenged one of her Chicago classes to combine writing, community service, performance and activism into a single project.
“For me, it’s important to understand that, no matter what your age is, you have the ability to act, to accomplish something, to effect change,” Vazquez said in an interview for Teachers@ED, an occasional series on the ED Blog that highlights current and former teachers working at the Department of Education.
Vazquez’s students were required to find, in her words, “some topic, some issue that they knew about from personal experience, something they cared strongly about.”
“They needed to figure out who their audience was, what their message was, and they had to write or create original poetry that spoke to that experience.”
These poems were then performed in each student’s community. The students also had to incorporate community service into the project, record their service hours, and present an account of their final project to the class.
“I wanted them to understand how poetry, or art, could effect change,” Vazquez said. “It could be a tool in and of itself. “
Originally from Chicago, Vazquez has taught English, writing and drama at all levels of education, from kindergarten to graduate-level university students. A former teacher in the Chicago public school system, Vazquez also has taught English and helped students conceive and write theatrical productions in Uruguay. Vazquez was especially adept at forging relationships between her Uruguayan students and exceptional individuals from the country, including the survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crash that inspired the film Alive.
At ED, Vazquez works in the Information Resource Center (IRC), where she handles customer inquiries, complaints, questions, comments, problems, or, as she says, “anything to do with the Department of Education, from every constituent.” Vazquez works to answer questions from education stakeholders—including parents, teachers, administrators, congressional offices, and general taxpayers—and to connect those stakeholders with accurate and accessible resources.
“We really work to provide information in a way that is easily accessible to whoever the [stakeholder] is,” Vazquez said. As a self-described “communications person,” she also works on teacher outreach and helped organize the Summer Seminar Series for Teachers.
Just as she found ways for her students to communicate their ideas through writing or performance, Vazquez works to ensure ED’s work is transparent and available to the public. Her background as a teacher helps her bridge the knowledge gap between education stakeholders and ED.
“I can relate to educators or parents because I’ve been in a similar situation before,” Vazquez said. “I have a context for understanding what someone’s talking to me about, so I can articulate the Department of Education perspective to them from within that framework.”
While Vazquez says she enjoys her work here at ED, she does miss some aspects of her old job—in particular, helping students empower themselves.
“Everyone needs to have that ‘a-ha moment,’ ” she said, “that moment that brings that sense of accomplishment—the belief that ‘I am doing something,’ which propels someone to move forward in life.”