Teach for America is the national nonprofit 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 member teachers working with students in the Rio Grande Valley.
Alán Díaz-Santana is a 2018 corps member who teaches ninth grade world geography dual language at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Memorial ECHS.
What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America and choose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley?
During my senior year at Yale, I got an email from a TFA recruiter saying that I had been recommended as someone who would be a good fit for TFA. I went to the one-on-one and left convinced that if anything, I should at least apply. A few rounds of interviewing and applying later, I had been placed in New Mexico. Not to knock New Mexico, but I wanted to return to the Rio Grande Valley.
As an immigrant from México and a first generation college student, I know that I would not have been able to accomplish most of the successes in my life if it were not for the strong community and teachers I had been blessed to have. Alongside this experience, my parents, particularly my father, reminded me that I needed to give back to the community that gave me so much despite not being from it. So once I had been placed in New Mexico, I fought for a transfer in order to make my way back to the Valley.
I also wanted to break a pattern I had noticed of people from the RGV not returning to our community to join the workforce. Most of my high school friends have graduated from great colleges, but most have not returned to the Valley. I want to use my experience as a way to convince others that the change they wish to see in the Valley is not going to happen unless they come and help make it. Moreover, I want to be able to look at my students when they tell me that they’ll never make it to a place like Yale and remind them that I did, so they can too.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve come to learn about education during your time as a classroom leader?
During my training period at TFA Institute and in other teacher preparation programs that I’ve gone through, I noticed educators are built up as a teacher and a leader but after getting to the classroom, we see how brilliant our students are. Every day I learn something new from my students that I would not have learned otherwise. They have taught me so much about topics I did not know even existed! Dropped trucks, YouTube makeup tutorials, and which tiendita has the best aguas frescas are some of the topics that come to mind. We’re constantly worried about whether the kids are learning but forget that they already possess knowledge that we, as educators, might never know or know how to measure.
If you could change one thing for your students, what would it be?
I would change the purpose of their schooling. As of right now, we’re in a testing dominated, profession focused education model. What seems to matter the most is how much money they can earn after college and not their personal liberation nor self understanding. Many of my students do not see their talents as assets, since they’re hyper focused on or traumatized by testing. I’d push their schooling toward one that develops them as whole human beings and learners rather than one pushing them in one direction.
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?
Teach For America’s role in creating systemic change is one of pushing progressive education goals along. In many ways, TFA opens up dialogue in districts and drives systemic change. Inclusive education has been championed by TFA since the start, and over time it has started to gain traction everywhere. TFA also provides a community of like-minded, open minded educators that constantly try to improve their work. TFA is not perfect however, and has many areas to improve, but leaders are open to feedback and that might be its strongest asset to create systemic change.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work as a corps member?
Working with students, especially recent arrivals; English learners; and students who would otherwise feel unwelcome in other spaces has been the most rewarding aspect of my work as a corps member and teacher. I see myself in them and try to be the teacher they need.
Can you share an anecdote or personal experience from your classroom or school?
During my first year I made an effort to attend my students’ extracurricular events. Whether it was a football game, a play, or an art show—I wanted to be there at least once a semester for each kiddo. It turns out that each of my students had such varied talents and skills. Going to these plays, concerts, and games helped me understand my students in ways that the classroom would not allow. These experiences allowed me to see my kids in a new light, but also helped me grow the relationships I have with them. On occasions when a parent couldn’t attend due to circumstances beyond control, I was glad to be that supportive face in the crowd for my students.