The Teacher Feature blog series celebrates our faculty’s passion for education and their joy in the journey of building our students’ futures. In this series, we will get to know these beloved educators. Just like our students and families, our instructors matter here. To learn more, visit our website.
What do opera, Italy, and Academy at the Lakes have in common? Mrs. Katie Vargas of course!
Vargas is a performer, the classroom is her stage, and the students are her audience. As Upper & Middle Division Girls’ Chorus Director, Middle Division Social Studies instructor, and 5th and 6th Grade Team Leader, Vargas’ professional training in opera (that she received in Italy, no less) actually comes in handy in the classroom. She has an innate ability to entertain and, more importantly, captivate her students.
“I certainly have an element of a show person in me. I feel like teaching and performance are so closely linked,” Vargas said. “I like being in front of these kids and being a total ham bone and trying to do certain things to keep their attention and keep class interesting. I personally feel that they buy into it 100 percent.”
So, how did this trained opera singer become a teacher at Academy?
“When I came back from Italy in 2003, I decided I just didn’t want to live, breathe, eat and sleep singing for the rest of my life. I just couldn’t envision making it my vocation,” Vargas said. “I always was really strong in school and I was a history buff, so I decided to major in history in the Honors College at the University of South Florida.”
While she was in college, she also taught voice lessons. One of her students happened to be an Academy student. As fate would have it, her student mentioned to her that the Chorus teacher was leaving the school and suggested that Vargas apply. And she did.
After speaking with John Pitcairn, Middle Division Director, and Mark Heller, Head of School, Mrs. Vargas was hired as both the Girls’ Chorus instructor and the 5th and 6th Grade Social Studies instructor. By this time she had received her bachelor’s degree in history. A few years later, she completed her Master’s Degree in Social Science Education.
As far as her teaching style, Vargas strongly believes in a developmental approach. She cares deeply for her students themselves as well as for their education, and she makes sure that they understand that.
From her “Happy Corner” to her “Happy Friday” song, Vargas’ classroom is full of positive energy, just like Vargas herself.
Made from an unused space in her classroom, the Happy Corner is a place where her Blue Note students can have lunch with her, troubled students can have a heart-to-heart conversation; and it is even a space where students can take make-up tests in comfort.
“On the first day of school I tell the kids, ‘Over here, I am SO happy, but … over here I’m RIDICULOUSLY happy!’” she explained as she jumped in and out of The Happy Corner.
The Happy Friday song developed after her first week teaching at Academy. “I was feeling very thankful that I made it through the week and I just started doing a Happy Friday song. As far as a dance and a song goes, it is so basic,” she described with a laugh.
“Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I feel like building a personal relationship with my students is just as important as whatever I’m going to teach in class that day.”
“Ultimately I want them to know that I love history, and it is worth my time. I want them to think, ‘I like that lady Mrs. Vargas, she is in my corner.’ I know that they’ll work harder, be more successful, and like school more because they know that they have a caring adult who is on their team.”
Teacher Tidbits: Get to Know Mrs. Vargas
Color: Seafoam Green
Animal: Whales and Otters (I also love dogs! Especially my Chihuahua, Nani.)
Kind of Music: I love music from every genre that I connect with. In general, I love classic rock, indie rock, and Hawaiian music.
Food: I love spaghetti! I lived in Italy and love authentic Cibo Italiano!
Villain: Femme Fatale, Satine, from Moulin Rouge. (If I have to choose a “villain,” let it be one who sings!
Superhero: Indiana Jones—Professor of history and archeology, a complete charmer, involved in high adventure, always triumphing over the odds – not without significant obstacles to overcome, a laconic sense of humor— and you’ve got my ideal hero. (Especially one who hates snakes as much as I do!)
Finish the Sentence
My favorite subject in school was history, literature, and chorus.
When I was in 12th grade, I wanted to be an opera singer.
I love when my students leave my class thinking that the study of history is fun and worthwhile! I love when my students let me know they appreciated something they learned in class or the relationship we have with each other.
I love teaching at Academy at the Lakes because I have the opportunity to build relationships with my students and address the needs of the “whole child.” I also love that I get to live out all of my passions—working with kids, teaching history, and making music— every single day at Academy!
When I am not at school, I like to read (I am in a book club), teach myself to play the ukulele (I have been playing since June), sing and take voice lessons, go shopping and antiquing for hidden treasures!
The best advice anyone ever gave me was: Gail Godwin said, “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theatre.” From my first year teaching, I learned that students need to be engaged in order to absorb the knowledge and skills they need. I always try to introduce the elements of “production values” in my teaching— animate, make faces, caricature voices, sing songs, move about the classroom, use hands for emphasis, wear costumes, use humor. Occasional variations make teaching all the more fun, silly, surprising, and inspiring for students—and teachers alike.
In the movie of your life, what actor would you want to play you and what would the movie be called?
‘Up in the Air.’ Since I was small, I always wanted to be a professional musician as an adult, but at 18, I made a 180 degree change towards a career I thought would be more rewarding and less self-absorbed than the role of “primadonna.” I would love for Kristin Chenoweth to play me because she’s short, blonde, sassy, and can sing!
If you could have any super power, what would it be?
If I could have any superpower, I would want the power of teleportation. I would love to travel and see the world’s monuments and natural wonders without having to check my baggage or sit in traffic!
If you could interview anyone, alive or dead, real or fictional, who would you interview and what would your first question be?
If I could interview anyone from the past, I would want to interview Martin Luther King, Jr. and ask him if he thinks his “dreams” for American civil rights have been fulfilled. If I could interview anyone from the present, I would like to interview J.K. Rowling and ask how her life influenced her writings.
If you could have any artist (alive or dead) draw a picture of you, who would you choose?
Andy Warhol-I just visited his exhibition at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and I would love to see his “vision” for my self-portrait.
If you could go back in time, where would you go and what would you do?
If I could go back in time, I would visit the revolutionary period in Boston. I was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, very close to Boston, and have a strong attachment to the area and its history. The American patriots forever changed the course of world events because they acted upon the ideals of the Ages of Enlightenment and Reason to challenge the notion the power—people should rule themselves rather than be ruled by a king. America showed the world a better government and it would be fascinating to witness the events that led to the Declaration of Independence.
If you could live the life of any fictional character, what character would you choose?
If I could be any fictional character, I would choose Dorothy Gale, as portrayed by Judy Garland in the movie, The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy befriends misfits and defies bullies, proving that loyalty and luck trump witchery and wickedness. She’s a fierce female who can hold her own against evil-doers and is just as capable as “the guys.”
We had Mrs. Vargas’s students answer one question: What is your favorite thing about your teacher?
These are some of the responses: