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.
Brailin Paulino Pena is a 2018 corps member who teaches ninth grade Pre-AP English 1 at IDEA Mission College Preparatory.
What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America and choose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley?
I was motivated to join based on my belief in the unwavering potential of all students. When I heard about the RGV and the large Hispanic/Latino population, I knew that I would be able to reach students that may have similar stories to my own. As an immigrant and first generation college student, I had to face many challenges on my own and saw first-hand how belief in myself compelled me to reach my goals. I had so many people along the way believe in me and walk with me as I reached those goals. I want to be that person that is there to walk with my students.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve come to learn about education during your time as a classroom leader?
Aside from the countless hours and high standards, exhausting weeks, and heavy expectations, the most important thing I learned about education is that students just need someone who will believe in them unconditionally. I think expectations are set way too low for our students. It is amazing that we push for 100% matriculation to colleges, but I think it is equally, if not more important, that they are actually prepared when they get there. It is sad that many students are held to these low expectations for so long, that many of them will even test you to see if that belief will waiver. Some will even expect you to give up and leave. Some days it is exhausting to be there for your students unconditionally but when you see them grow and mature as people and show academic improvements, it makes every moment worth it. I don’t hold back with my kids, and they know that I will always push them mentally, emotionally, and for my athletes, physically. Belief can be a magical thing because it tears down walls that have held our kids down for so long.
If you could change one thing for your students, what would it be?
One thing that I am concerned about is the time students have for lunch. At IDEA, students are given 30 minutes from the time the bell rings to walk to the cafeteria, wait in line, eat, and socialize in ways they cannot in the classroom. By the time many of them sit down to eat, they only have about 10 minutes to eat and socialize, which is not nearly enough time. I wish lunch were longer so that students could have enough to eat without having to rush and actually socialize with their friends. This way, they aren’t distracted in the classroom, and have less pent-up energy during class.
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?
When I was first recruited, I was told that TFA places leaders in the classroom to ensure that all students, no matter their background, would receive quality education. TFA is focused on finding leaders who believe in their children 200%, even when the difficulties arise. I believe that no matter how a teacher enters the profession, they should not put limits on the expectations they have for all students.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work as a corps member?
I have been so blessed to have the opportunity to build amazing relationships with many of my kids. Somehow, I found myself having more sons and daughters than when I started off as a teacher (I started off with zero). I care so much about my students as if they were my own children. Our bond is a blessing and an honor.
Can you share an anecdote or personal experience from your classroom or school?
Last year I focused on loving my kids and building relationships with them. Through that, I poured into their minds a really infectious thought: that they can do so much, if they just believe in themselves. I also focused on making sure my kids were doing well emotionally and mentally. Every single day was a new opportunity to show them that I care about them unconditionally. This year, a student asked to speak with me privately. In our conversation the student opened up about tough mental battles they had to fight daily. During the conversation, the student told me that they felt like they could trust me, and this is something felt by their peers as well. It’s those moments that makes teaching worth it: not the scores, but how much they know that someone loves, cares and believes in them.