MISSION — Local school district teacher Rhonda Peña is officially the statewide 2019 Elementary Teacher of the Year. The Texas Association of School Administrators named Peña the winner of the prestigious title during a luncheon Friday.

The Bryan Elementary School fifth-grade math teacher was first selected as districtwide teacher of the year this January, followed by a regional teacher of the year recognition by Region One, and finally, the statewide honor.

“Words cannot really express just how proud of Ms. Peña we are in Mission CISD,” said Carol G. Perez, Mission CISD superintendent, in a news release. “The tremendous heart and passion that she pours into her work each and every day is done with the sole focus of helping her students, not to bring attention to herself. So for Ms. Peña to earn this statewide award, it means so much more.”

Peña was astonished to hear she was selected as one of three elementary teacher finalists last month and in an interview with The Monitor she said felt honored already even if she didn’t win.

But her 28 years of experience as a teacher and devotion to her students landed her the state recognition. In an interview with The Monitor earlier this month, Peña said she hopes to inspire other teachers not to give up when things get rough.

“In the end the kids are the ones that need us to show them that they are important,” she said. “That their interests are important to us. We need them to go into junior high with that confidence.”

Peña, of Coleraine, Minnesota, has been at Bryan Elementary for 25 years, and has been living in the Rio Grande Valley for 28 years. Her career in education began in the Valley and in her time at Bryan, she has been recognized as campus teacher of the year twice. In 2017 she was also awarded the H-E-B Excellence in Education Lifetime Achievement Award.

Every, year Peña starts her class with a lesson that she hopes her students keep for the rest of the year. This year, she began the school year but giving them all a tube of toothpaste and asking them to squeeze a little bit out. Then she asked them to put it back in.

“The toothpaste is like words,” she explained. “You can easily let them come out, but you can’t take them back very easily. It helps to do that day one, that way throughout the year if they hear them not being nice to each other, I say, ‘Remember the toothpaste?”

TASA also selected teacher Jeff Wheatcraft, of the Alamo Heights school district located north of San Antonio, as 2019 Secondary Teacher of the Year.

“I congratulate Rhonda and Jeff on this achievement. Texas Teacher of the Year is the highest honor our state bestows upon its teachers,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of TASA, in a news release. “They have distinguished themselves among thousands of outstanding, dedicated teachers across our state and nation have who have answered the call to serve others.”