Roma educator wants to close gap for underserved communities

Alejandra Contreras (Courtesy photo)

Alejandra Contreras is a 2017 TFA corps member teaching 10th grade geometry at Roma High School.

What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America in the Rio Grande Valley?

Growing up, I had no idea that my background would have such a substantial influence on my career choice. I come from an immigrant family and am a first-generation, minority college graduate. I lived in a low-income, rural community and, although I did not know it at the time, attended underperforming public schools my whole life.

Despite my circumstances, I performed well in school. I had a passion for learning and later, a passion for math. I knew early on that I wanted to teach and share my love for learning and math with others, but I did not have a particular community in mind. It was not until I started my undergraduate career at the University of California, Irvine that I became aware of the achievement gap. I met students who came from more affluent communities than me who had already completed internships or had been a part of research projects in high school. Consequently, these affluent students out-performed me and our peers in college. It was then that I realized that I was at a disadvantage, not because I was not capable, but because of the zip code I came from. I knew then that I wanted to give back to underserved communities like the one I was part of.

As an educator, I am passionate about teaching in low-income, underserved communities. I can truly say that if it were not for the support systems that I had in high school — teachers, AVID and Upward Bound programs —I would not be where I am today. After experiencing this incongruity first-hand, I realized that I want to serve as a teacher in a community that needs great teachers the most. Not only do I want to be an effective teacher, I also hope to build relationships and serve as a mentor and resource for students and their families. My goal is to be a lifelong educator and help students who come from low-income communities, like myself, to successfully pursue and accomplish their educational goals.

What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve come to learn about education during your time as a classroom leader?

One of the most surprising things that I have come to learn about education during my time as a classroom leader is that not “one size fits all.” By the time students are in high school one can easily notice a gap between learners. Some students have a strong math foundation and a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and other lack such understanding. The educational gap that is formed can be accredited to many different factors, but, as an educator, it serves as an everyday reminder. I understand that I need to be sensitive to students’ needs and meet them where they are in order to help them build background knowledge instead of jumping into new lessons and expecting them to know it all.

If you could change one thing for your students, what would it be?
If I could change one thing for my students, it would be that they have more resources. It would be helpful for students, especially in math, to use different types of manipulatives to accommodate different learning styles I would increase the amount of opportunities educators have to attend professional development sessions that can enhance our effectiveness I believe that collaborating with other teachers, sharing ideas, and learning how to incorporate different types of instruction/lessons/project-based learning effectively in the classroom can really benefit our students substantially.

At a time when more people recognize the inequity of education in public schools, Teach for America has an important role to play. What do you view as Teach For America’s role in creating systemic change?

I believe that Teach for America’s role in creating systemic change is to recruit great leaders that can lead a classroom in communities that are most in need. I also believe that Teach for America, alongside the corps members, share a responsibility to support and help build great teachers in an innovative and emotionally/culturally-responsive manner.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your work as a corps member?
It has been great to be a part of such a great organization that is constantly working alongside me to help me grow as a person and educator. Teach for America RGV has been nothing short of caring and helpful through this journey and I do not think I would have received this type of support anywhere else had I not been a corps member.

Can you share an anecdote or personal experience from your classroom or school?

As we were reaching the end of the school year last year, I was having trouble engaging students in the content we were covering. My mentor teacher and I noticed that we had to change things up in order to ensure that students were learning. We decided to take a different approach when we reached our area unit and decided to give project-based learning a try. Students were still required to understand and learn the area formulas of two-dimensional shapes, but in addition, they were also required to apply the formulas and properties of kites to design, create and fly their own kite. Although not all students were exactly thrilled about working through the logistics of their blueprint, once it came down to creating their kite, they were invested. There were students who had never showed much interest in math during the whole school year, but when it came to applying what they learned, they were engaged participants.

Teach for America (TFA) is the national non-profit organization committed to the idea that one day, all children will attain an excellent education. To this end, the organization partners with communities to inspire the next generation of leaders to address unequal educational opportunities that fall along the lines of race and class. They begin this lifelong work with an initial two-year commitment to teach in some of the nation’s most underserved schools. In this series, we spotlight corps members and alumni working with students in the Rio Grande Valley.