Teach for America educator sees herself in RGV students

Sara Arciniega Nevarez is a 2020 Teach for America RGV Corps Member and first-grade dual language at Henry Ford Elementary School in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD.

TFA asked Sara a few questions about her journey to education, and how she brings her personal life experience to the classroom.

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

I applied to Teach For America because I see myself in the students we serve. I grew up in Oak Cliff in Dallas. I experienced the limited opportunities, the self-limiting beliefs, and the yearning to help your parents in tough situations. But I also experienced the beauty of our communities: the strength, the creativity, the loyalty. I often see education for students in low-income areas being approached from a deficit perspective. The system also forces English on students as if that is the only language we can be successful in and fails to recognize the funds of knowledge in their own community.

In the Rio Grande Valley, many districts have incorporated the Dual Language Program throughout their schools. I see that this program meets students where they are and sees their culture and native language as a tool for future success. I wanted to be a part of this program because I believe in the results we can achieve here in the Rio Grande Valley. Hopefully, it also provides an example for other districts to also promote and support bilingual education for their students. The goal is for our students to be bilingual, bi-literate, and bicultural and I am here for it! Let’s empower our students to be the best version of their authentic selves that they can be.

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

As a newbie, I have tried to learn as much as possible from teachers I work with, Teacher TikTok, Teacher Facebook pages, and searching #bilingualteacher on Instagram. The biggest takeaway I’ve received from my searches is that the creativity teachers have to work with whatever is thrown their way is so inspiring! But yet as we have all witnessed, especially during the pandemic, there is the constant recognition that teachers are passionate and irreplaceable but there is no change to their workload, no restructuring, and only slight increases in pay. As much as administrations promote mental health days, nothing really changes without a change in the structure and expectations of teachers. We are humans, too. I hope that with this new presidential administration, considering our First Lady is a teacher, there is a lot more done for our education system. Our hardworking teachers and students need it. We can do better.

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

From the bottom of my heart, I truly wish I could remove the multiple barriers my students face daily. This pandemic has exacerbated their barriers to a quality education. It revealed that systemic racism doesn’t just show itself in the criminal justice system. Data shows us that Hispanic/Latinx and Black communities are being impacted by the pandemic at disproportionate rates. I see that every day in my classroom. I have students who are unable to connect because their parent needs to pick up a second job to get by, their parent is struggling to pay the WiFi bill or paying other responsibilities, or they are patiently waiting for a district-sponsored device. Whatever it may be, it’s not fair for my first-grade students. They are already considered at-risk due to English being a second language and now they have to face the realities of racial inequity of the coronavirus. I meet my students and parents where they are as much as I can, but there is only so much we can do as teachers. I know what it’s like to have an immigrant parent who is still learning about technology, it reminds me of teaching my own parents about downloading apps and such things. So, I try to reach and explain in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. But if I have learned one thing since this pandemic started is that: if there is a will, there is a way and my students’ parents have shown that. They are learning and adapting to meet the needs of their students and it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. As a community, we will come out stronger after this pandemic.

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?

A part of Teach For America’s role in creating systemic change is to ensure more diverse candidates are given a chance to apply by increasing the diversity of schools from where they recruit. Representation matters and our students would benefit greatly from a teacher who looks like them and who knows their experiences. Our students need to see themselves in these positions of authority, they need to see that we can make it, too. It’s not just people we read about, but it’s even people in their life. I also believe that it would make a difference in the kind of conversations we have at TFA’s Summer Institute to hear from people who have been in the same place as the students we serve. It gives our approach a different perspective. A perspective that considers that love can be shown in different ways in different households, that there are hidden strengths that you wouldn’t see as an outsider looking into a community, and that students can be held to high expectations despite their socioeconomic status. You don’t have to feel sorry for them, and the teachers who know that best are the ones that come from that community. We want our students to be proud of where they come from. There is so much power in that.

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

My students from last year, the Butterfly Ninja Kids (our student-voted class name), were completing a class project where we discussed the impact of Martin Luther King Jr.’s actions on the country. They learned about his life and what he did to help others. We incorporated Goal 10 – reduce inequalities within and among countries – from the Global Goals for Sustainable Development into our project. So, the students were tasked with writing and explaining how they would contribute kindness and equality in their community. The response of one of my students, Kaasi Y., will forever stay in my heart and remind me why I do what I do. She very proudly said as a little brown girl, that she would become President one day because she wants to help the people who look like her. As a teacher, wow! The depth of critical thinking she showed as a kindergartner was beautiful but as a person, this is the kind of power I want to instill into my students of color. Yes, strive to become President, mama! Forever and always proud of my kiddos.

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.