TFA middle school educator driven to empower Latino students

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.

Yareli Iglecias is a 2018 corps member who teaches sixth grade science dual language (science in Spanish) at Raul Yzaguirre Middle School.

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

When presented with the opportunity, I challenged myself to be that teacher I didn’t have. That teacher who knows her students are more than a test score, the one who isn’t afraid to have real conversations about what’s happening in the world and what we can do to help, the one who loves science and has a contagious passion for experimenting and asking “what if” questions. I wanted to be the teacher who is proud to be a role model for the kids, but also shows them how much you can learn from mistakes. My favorite teacher, Mr. Molano never got after me for speaking Spanish and without realizing it, he provided a safe space for me. As a Mexican immigrant, I felt like I had to blend in with the people in the U.S., but Mr. Molano taught me to embrace and be proud of my Mexican culture. Empowered Latinxs empower Latinxs, and that’s what I represent in my classroom: an empowered Latina who wants to give back to her community.

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

As I work on a master’s in school counseling, I began implementing a holistic strategy into my teaching. The fact is that 95.1 % of my students are economically disadvantaged; and with that status, comes an array of personal problems that children should not have to deal with! But they still come to school ready to learn and looking for a safe place to be loved. I enjoy building relationships with my students and helping them reflect to find solutions. On Mondays, we practice Lumos (a Harry Potter reference to light) which consists of practicing meditation with the Headspace app. On Fridays, we write on a board one thing that we’re grateful for. It’s surprising to see how much the kids love these two practices and when I forget to do it, they remind me before class is over!

If you could change one thing for your students, what would it be?

I dream of an education system who celebrates the cultural differences among its members. A system that employs teachers who use CRP and merge a holistic perspective. I dream that one day, we stop giving so much importance to a state exam and value our students for who they really are.

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?

At the beginning of our first year of service, we are provided with a foundational training and a summer training called Institute. These two trainings teach us about Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) and Universal Design Learning (UDL), it challenges our biases, and gives us tools to fight against educational inequity. In addition, we get ongoing support in our classrooms during our two years of service and we attend a bi-monthly leadership summit. I feel blessed to be part of such powerful and positive-minded leaders, who are always so supportive of my role in the classroom. I believe that TFA educators can change our current and very broken education system; and inspire non-TFA educators to follow in our footsteps.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your work as a corps member?

I’m amazed to see that there’s an increasing number of Latinx leaders in Teach For America, especially because they are now the role models of the youth. These young kids get to say “Wow he/she looks like me and they achieved their goals; that means I can do it too!” According to statistics, I was supposed to have become a high school dropout or a teen mom, but with the help of many leaders, I overcame the stereotype I was supposed to fit into. The new generation gets to see that numbers are just numbers; we are people who can achieve anything they set their mind to.

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

Last year I did an activity with my students called “Tap someone who” and then the prompts were something like “Tap someone who makes you smile, Tap someone who is a good listener”. At first some of the kids didn’t want to participate because they had to have their eyes closed; but afterwards they were so glad they did. Some of the kids confessed that they were scared nobody was going to tap them, but when they did they were so surprised and happy. Unfortunately, a lot of these kids are not used to hearing compliments frequently, so it was a nice surprise that made their hearts happy!