George Mason University

News at Mason

He stayed in school, like his dad said. Now he's an exemplary teacher

July 3, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Mason alumnus Dennis Nolasco (left, with his parents Amado and Maria), received an Exemplary Early Career Teacher award. Photo provided.

Dennis Nolasco will always remember those summer days in the blazing sun, on his hands and knees, picking weeds.

Nolasco did this every summer from ages 10 through 18, at work with his landscaper father.

“At the end of the day he’d say, ‘Did you enjoy that?’” Nolasco recalled. “I said, ‘No, I hate this. It’s terrible.’ And he’d say, ‘You’ve got to stay in school so you don’t have to do this.’”

The memory resonated when Nolasco, a George Mason University graduate (BA English ’14; MEd Curriculum and Instruction ’17) was awarded an Exemplary Early Career Teacher award from the Apple Federal Credit Union Education Foundation.

The $2,500 award is given annually to a teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools who has between one and three years of experience and is a graduate of Mason’s College of Education and Human Development.

 Said Nolasco, 25, “I was shocked.”

He shouldn’t have been. Nolasco’s classrooms are full of enthusiasm, Cherith Pierson, assistant principal at Cooper Middle School in McLean, Va., wrote when she nominated Nolasco. She added, “His knowledge of standards, as well as his unique knowledge and understanding of young adolescent literature, enhances the learning experience of his students.”

Nolasco, who is spending three weeks in South Korea this summer as part of a teacher exchange through the public school system, is also a jack of all trades. As an ESOL teacher (English for Speakers of Other Languages), he bounces from classroom to classroom—from remedial English to science to history—to simplify the language so it is more accessible to his students.

Nolasco said his time at Mason was invaluable.

“When I started doing ESOL, teaching kids who come from all over the world, I took what I learned from just being at Mason and how Mason did things and applied it to the classroom,” he said.

That includes making sure his relationship to his students is strong through interactive learning and, at times, focusing on “just being a good person,” he said.

“The thing that struck me about him was just his natural curiosity,” said assistant professor Jori Beck, who is now at Old Dominion University but who taught Nolasco in three classes at Mason and supervised his student teaching. “He embodies the lifelong learner we want all of our kids to be. It’s been amazing watching him grow and [be] an advocate for kids.”

Which brings us back to Nolasco’s most important advocates: his parents, Amado and Maria, who met in the United States after emigrating from El Salvador. Amado had to leave school after the fourth grade to help on the family farm, Nolasco said. Maria did not go to school until she came to the United States.

“He never had a chance to get an education and that always stuck with me,” Nolasco said of his dad. “Every day since the first day of preschool he would say, ‘This is your job. This is the only thing that matters.’ He literally said that every day until I graduated high school.”

“Knowledge is the most powerful tool,” Nolasco added. “Seeing [students] gain that little bit of knowledge, it gives me hope they’ll grow up to be important members of society. Just seeing that light go on gives me hope they have a chance to make something of themselves in this country.”

Dennis Nolasco (second from left, with fellow ESOL teacher Laura Gilmore) said he relies heavily on interactive learning to build relationships with his students.. Photo provided.