Ask Luis Soria about the day he received the Oppenheimer Award for excellence in teaching and he'll tell you how his digital photography students surprised him.
They presented photographs depicting a day in the life of Mitchell Elementary School, the Chicago pre-K to eighth grade public school where Soria is principal.
"I was overwhelmed and filled with pride," he says. "I love being with children and watching them evolve into inspirational human beings."
Inspiration can found in Soria's own 20-year journey to becoming an award-winning principal, past recipient of the Kohl McCormick Award for excellence in early childhood education and the first Latino in Chicago to become a National Board certified teacher.
After spending a summer in high school tutoring children at his neighborhood church, Soria, 50, of Chicago, knew he wanted to be a teacher. His plans to attend Western Illinois University on a scholarship changed when his father died in a car accident. To be near his family, Soria attended Loyola University on scholarship, but dropped out to help his struggling mother. He took a factory job, worked as a bartender, and, one class at a time for 12 years, he finished his degree.
Soria was honored with the 2011 OPPY Award for creating experience-based curriculums, winning grants and getting his staff to customize lesson plans based on students' interests, needs and the state's core learning standards.
Soria is the first principal who also teaches to earn an OPPY.
"When teachers have the support of the principal, they support the students," says Ted Oppenheimer, president of the Oppenheimer Family Foundation. "It's hard to find principals like him."
A recent grant will allow Soria to work with middle school students on a bully prevention project. It will include a student-developed pamphlet, documentary film and artwork all depicting bullying and appropriate responses to it. The project will culminate with a showing of the film and raising money for a teen organization.
"I credit my teachers for the amazing work we do here," Soria says. "It's not about the principal at our school. It's about the community that we have established together."