Teach for America educator at IDEA Weslaco Pike an RGV native

Ernesto Farias is a 2019 Teach For America RGV Corps member and teaches 8th Advanced Social Studies at IDEA Weslaco Pike College Prep.

TFA asked Ernesto a few questions about his journey to education and how his own upbringing in the Rio Grande Valley impacts his teaching and connection to his students.

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

I chose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley because the RGV is my home. I am a native of Brownsville, and Matamoros, Mexico. Like many of our students, I was a commuter student, living and going to school on both sides of the border through part of high school and most of college. I attended UTRGV and graduated as part of their inaugural class, admitted in 2015. In college, I had the opportunity to mentor first-year students and support their families on the road through college. Many of those students had diverse backgrounds such as levels of English proficiency, immigration status, and education attainment. After building relationships with my mentees, I began to understand their challenges and work on how to support them through school leadership positions.

It was my student involvement and my degree in Mexican American Studies which broadened my knowledge of the field of education in the Rio Grande Valley and the systemic issues around it. I realized that, although our community values education immensely, opportunities are not always equitable. The lack of technology and internet access, language barriers, health care access, and many others, impact the classroom every day. Sometimes even those struggles can impede developing a sense of identity and pride for our community and heritage that can impact how deserving we feel in achieving success. I wanted to instill in students a sense of pride and leadership to attain educational equity here at home. My education and lived experiences allowed me to understand the opportunity gap we face and drove me to join TFA.

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

Good leadership in education impacts not only students and teachers, but staff, families, and communities as a whole. In conjunction with that, the impact that policy has in our schools, at any level, impacts our community on a daily basis. Our most recent example is the handling of COVID at any district locally or throughout the state to keep our community safe. As we move forward, teachers are tasked to perform at incredibly high levels with sometimes no guidance or support from their leaders, locally, or in the state about the new policies at stake. The amount of expectations put on the teacher’s shoulders is incredibly overwhelming. Before teaching, I would have never believed how much was at stake. Now, I have come to appreciate my own teachers’ leadership and sacrifices, because I understand how critical our job is. I believe more than ever we need for our leaders, inside and outside schools, to support our classroom leaders so we can get it right for our community.

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

Our communities are changing, and the focus in our education system has to change too. We focus so much on test scores sometimes that we forget other forms of achievement. Although I agree that academic knowledge is critical, I believe meeting the social-emotional needs of students, developing their soft skills, and providing space for them to be brave should also be a focus in our education system.

We hear how universities and the workforce search for well-rounded applicants through a holistic process which doesn’t necessarily focus on only academics, but on the whole person. I believe education should tap into the unknown potential of our students and guide them to become culturally successful; an education that focuses on and values developing emotional intelligence, people skills, and service to others.

In the end, the change will need to happen from within our districts and outside of them. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how much we need more of these social skills in our schools and communities. The focus needs to change for our community to change in the future.

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?

My experience in the classroom building relationships with students and families and seeing firsthand the challenges that educators face, have continued to remind me of the importance education has in our communities. Since the Rio Grande Valley is my home, I understand the struggles we face, and I believe Teach For America allows for more leaders to understand and support our region.

As a systematic issue calls for a systematic solution, we need to bring leaders from every sector of our community to work together in mind of that goal. Teach For America is doing that by partnering with districts, teachers, and organizations that look to better the life of our students, and the ones of their communities.

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

At the end of the school year, we had just finished our lesson on the American Civil War. We were starting to learn the post effects of the war, and it provided the opportunity to connect it to the Rio Grande Valley’s history. My students and I started having a conversation about racism, segregation, and discrimination and connecting it to the history of our region. Students began asking their grandparents about what they knew of these topics and if they had ever experienced any of them. Little by little, my students started to not only learn the history of our country and the RGV but the ones of their families. I had students coming up to me and telling me that they had no idea that those stories lived within their communities. Listening to my students’ voice out this realization made me recognize that change was taking place in the way they perceived their life experiences in the RGV. It is what I wanted to accomplish from being a teacher—creating a sense of identity within them through learning about their history. When we learn about our family’s history or the one from our community, we are bound to start building an identity and a sense of purpose.

Teach for America (TFA) 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. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, 61 corps members work in seven districts across the region.