I came to this country from Mexico when I was six years old. My grandparents valued education and wanted to see us grow and succeed, and we hoped to seek better opportunities as a family. Quite honestly, navigating the school system was difficult. Learning to speak the language was the first step in succeeding inside the school system. However, I learned that there was much more than just language competency. Eventually, I began to notice that some students had the resources to pay for a tutor and to go to the magnet schools whereas other students were left behind. It ended up with this realization that I wasn’t less intelligent, but the school that I attended did not have the rich curricula and resources I needed to propel forward. Now, as an elementary teacher, I realize just how important that rich curriculum is in growing our students both socially/emotionally and academically. It is the rich foundation upon which everything else is built.
As a child, I remember being told that I needed to speak Spanish less and lose my accent. In fact, some of my cousins no longer can speak Spanish because of this. At the time, I felt very ashamed of where I was from but at the same time wanted to do what I could to grow myself despite individuals who ‘did not want me here.’ The pivotal moment in my educational experience came in middle school when I joined KIPP Academy in Houston, Texas. Interestingly, one of the memorable phrases I was taught as a KIPP student was to ‘fake it until you make it.’ It was built around this culture and idea that if we worked hard, we could change the world. This was an environment where educators truly advocated for me both academically and personally. They discussed my legal status and even helped me get the resources I needed to enroll in a private high school. Because of this environment and the supporting educators surrounding me, I had opportunities to get into some excellent colleges in California. In fact, there were seven colleges that accepted me. Unfortunately, because of 9/11, the documentation process was incredibly slow and so I went with the college that offered me everything I needed (Pitzer College). This was an institution that saw me not just as an academic but as a person.
My whole life I played teacher, and it had been my dream to become a teacher. I told my parents I was going to study psychology (which I did during my undergraduate years), and I joined Teach For America in 2007 and got a job in the KIPP Academy in the Bronx. Ironically, I had visited this school as a 7th grader and so it was a full circle moment for me. I wanted to cumulatively build on and make better a system that had so much potential. I felt like I was truly standing on the shoulders of the giants that had come before me.
Recently, there has been a shift that has occurred in my thinking. I no longer feel like I have to “fake it until I make it.” I feel like I can be my authentic self for the first time and remain confident in who I am and also my story as to why I’m here. I’m proud of myself and of my story. As a professional but also a human, I continue to work on this idea of radical candor. If I’m talking to an individual that I know has a viewpoint that I disagree with, I don’t always challenge those conversations or viewpoints in a way that I am supposed to. For example, I really dislike when I hear people talking about their student’s lives or people make assumptions about a student’s academic performance based on their life stories. Those stories are not ours to judge nor are they stories we have the right to tell. Yet, as much as I dislike these conversations, I am often hesitant to interject.
It’s difficult to be with people who don’t necessarily share a similar mindset. However, my one rule is that despite the differences, it’s important to keep talking. I always ask myself “Am I the person who has the right to challenge others assumptions?” In aspects of identity and letting people be themselves- this should happen as fast as it needs to. However, I often wonder if sometimes we are pushing too fast and people simply aren’t ready for the conversation or ready for the change. It’s a tug-o-war type of psychological battle. To be honest, I’m not sure if there is a correct answer.
It wasn’t until this year at Teach Plus where I finally saw myself as a teacher and a leader. Previously, I kept trying to “move on’’ even though I knew I was happiest in the classroom. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I could be a teacher and also something else. I think this mentality has stemmed from what society has always told us about teachers that “we could do something better” or work in a field that was more esteemed or perhaps a position that is more respected. In other words, there are more esteemed “titles” than just “teacher.” I think this mentality that teachers are just teachers is something that is ingrained within us. My ultimate question is: How do I multiply this number? How can I create ripples of change that goes beyond just the classroom of students I teach? In my mind- it’s not enough. The system has starved countless students of money, resources, and experiences. Our students deserve more and they deserve better.
Interestingly, when I came to Pittsburgh, this idea of trying to “move on” from the classroom became a reality. I came here and I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have the correct certificate despite working in the field for a decade. I felt confused and purposeless in those beginning months. Three months later, I became a recruiter for Teach For America and quite honestly very few individuals wanted to go into the teaching profession. Many of these students had no interest in becoming teachers-nothing was drawing them into the profession. Shortly thereafter, I pivoted and became a math coach at a private company and found myself incredibly unhappy as the systemic issues within education became more and more transparent. This then led to a first-grade position at a nearby charter school. I went from nearly a decade of experience teaching 5th, 7th and 8th grade math to a first-grade teacher which I realized quickly was not a cake walk. How I once viewed elementary education is not at all how I view it now. The beauty in this is that education constantly makes you rethink what you think. The hope is that I can become a better person and that will eventually change the minds and hearts of the people around me. The Teach Plus organization made me realize that I don’t have to give up the classroom experience to also create waves of change in other ways.
Two individuals I look up to are Feinberg and Levin. These two leaders created an entire culture around our schools. I know every KIPP school isn’t great. However, in the schools I attended and taught, the culture is so endemic. I can still feel and identify with that culture I felt as a seventh grader- it was such a rich culture. My middle school math teacher was essential in helping me all the way through college. It was this idea of team and family that allowed us to believe that we could succeed. The beautiful thing about today is that we are moving forward in such a way that humans and students are becoming accepted for being their unapologetic, authentic selves. This is something millennials and social media have really inspired, and it has been inspiring to see how education has changed throughout the years.
I’m still a teacher today because (quite simply) it’s what I have wanted to do my entire life, and it makes me happy. My hope for today and the future is that every parent and child is given the same educational choices that a wealthy, white upper-class parent is given. For me, I don’t think there is one perfect school culture because there are so many different kinds of people in the world. However, I think the choices and opportunities need to exist for all students. In addition, I hope that we continue to move forward in this awakening we seem to be having before we lose more kids than we have left behind. We should be able to use our brain power to get our students what they need.