I was raised by a strong Mexican mother who left behind her siblings, parents, and an abusive husband in Mexico to ensure that my brother and I would have a better life. My mother brought us to a rural town in East Texas, where she taught me the meaning of perseverance and resilience as she walked four miles every day to a job that paid her less than minimum wage.
I have carried her example with me through my younger years as an English-language learner and still now in my role as an educator. She was my first teacher.
At only five years old, I had no idea that my mother’s decision to come to the United States would completely alter the course of my life. To this day I am grateful for the sacrifice she made for me and my brother.
Even with my mother’s outstanding example, I had enormous barriers to overcome in order to succeed. I was in ESL classes until 2nd grade and my family didn’t really discuss higher education or professional degrees. Though I was always a good student, it was not until 8th grade that my trajectory really changed.
By the time I reached middle school, I had mastered the English language. By which I mean, I liked to talk in class. A lot. And I loved to get involved in everything. My need to be in the middle of things would eventually lead to some great experiences. But at the time, it just got me in trouble.
In 8th grade, after getting sent to the principal’s office for nonstop talking, I received an unusual punishment. My principal noticed that, in addition to my extracurricular talking, I was also making all As. So he came up with a creative consequence—he put me in pre-AP classes.
One of the only Latinas in these advanced classes, I looked around at my peers and saw them joining clubs, studying for standardized tests and preparing for college. With little guidance, I harnessed my communication skills and took it upon myself to get in the middle of that too. In high school, I joined the student council, became president of the Hispanic club, started the movement for a girls’ soccer team and served as a class ambassador, all while working part time at the local Golden Corral so I could afford club dues and participate in activities.
When I heard a friend talking about her upcoming college campus visits, and I even invited myself to go along with her.
After tirelessly working to keep up with my classmates, I became the first in my family to attend college, paving the road for my younger sister to do the same.
The effect of representation
Years later, while in graduate school, I interned as a school counselor at a Denton middle school where I met Sophia, a young lady who was new to the country. She gravitated toward me whenever she had the chance, likely because it was comforting for her to see a teacher who looked like her and spoke her language.
Sophia began asking me questions about my life. She had so many! So I started asking her about herself.
When I asked her how school was going, she told me, “It’s really hard. I sometimes don’t understand my teachers. I’m scared to ask questions. I don’t want them to think I’m slow.”
I began to wonder—if Sophia feels this way and is brave enough to ask questions, how many more students in the building are struggling? How long have they been struggling? Through Sophia, I realized the importance of having teachers of color in the classroom. My being there had real and positive consequences.
In 2013,the principal of a local campus offered me a teaching job. I was trained as a school counselor and had not thought about becoming a teacher. But I accepted the position and began teaching 8th grade ELA.
After my first year teaching I thought to myself, if this is how it’s going to be for 20 plus years, I’m here to stay.
I enjoyed my students and my colleagues but the circumstances my students dealt with outside of our classroom’s four walls made the job extremely demanding. I had students who couldn’t participate in extra-curricular activities because they would have to go home and babysit. I had others who worked night jobs and came to school the next day exhausted. And I had countless students living with such high stress levels that the last thing they wanted to do was sit in my class and read.
Knowing all of this challenged me. For the small amount of time I had with them each day, I wanted them to feel safe, heard and loved. I couldn’t change their current circumstances outside the classroom, but I could equip them with the tools necessary to have a better future.
I decided early in my career that I would instill in my students the values of perseverance and resilience, just like my mother taught me. I build language arts and reading lessons around their interests and issues relevant to their unique backgrounds.
A classic and student favorite is The Outsiders. Students really connect with the themes of the book. We’re all human and struggle, and they get what it means to feel like an outsider.
Some of my 8th graders come to my class with reading levels several grades below. They feel really sad when they find out they’re not on grade level. Through one-on-one conversations, they learn to give themselves grace. I tell them that yes, it sucks and it isn’t fair. But they can improve.
I tell them “It’s OK. I got you. You do your part, and I’ll do mine.”
Through these strategies, my students become eager to learn and want to read even when life sends them curve balls. Demonstrating their own perseverance and resilience, my students stand firm on their future goals.
The ripple effect
I also want to make sure that I am opening doors for my students outside of the classroom. As a coach, I take my volleyball and soccer teams to collegiate games to demonstrate that if they want, they could be out there too one day. In 2015, I pushed my Destination Imagination team to dream big. As a result, our team made the state tournament. Along with two other colleagues, I took twenty students to Philadelphia to experience life outside our bubble in Northern Texas.
I have been fortunate to serve as a Latina educator and to be walking my life’s purpose for seven years now. I now get to see students I’ve taught in 8th grade go on to graduate high school and move on to the next step in their lives. It brings me great joy to believe in my students and see them succeed.
One of my 8th graders even told me “I’m going to graduate Valedictorian.” And that’s just what he did, with a full-ride scholarship to the University of Chicago.
So, I dedicate these wins to my mom, whose sacrifice so long ago has created a ripple effect in our community. Her actions changed my life, and that has had happy consequences for me, my students and the world.
My advice to future educators
These years of teaching have definitely been the most exciting chapter in my life so far. So, if you’re thinking about becoming an educator—jump in!
Know that at times it’s going to be challenging, but it’s so worth it! Just serving these students has been a reward on its own. And you meet amazing colleagues along the way. I’ve made life-long relationships in my time as a teacher.