TFA educator at Donna North seeks to counter educational inequity

Nycol Cotto is a 2019 Teach for America RGV Corps Member and 10th grade chemistry at Donna North High School.

TFA asked Nycol a few questions about her journey to education and what drives her passion for teaching.

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

I’ve always been interested in helping the community, I was always involved in helping ones who needed the most. I applied to Teach For America because I admired their mission of fighting against educational inequity, and wanted to make a difference in the lives of many students. Students are the future of the world and it is our duty, as educators, to be their role model and inspire them to be better each day. I believe that my role as a teacher is giving a voice to the ones that need it the most. I choose to teach in Rio Grande Valley because it’s a community in need of support and advocacy. As many of the students in the Valley, I also come from a Spanish speaking family and I understand the challenges that students face when learning and adapting to a new culture and language. Teaching in the Rio Grande Valley has allowed me to help those students, providing them with resources to learn by connecting with their cultural experiences and background.

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

I learned that education is all about developing a classroom culture and reinforcing every day. It is surprising how classroom culture can greatly influence students’ academic and personal growth by providing a safe learning environment and a supporting community. Creating this safe environment is based on promoting that sense of community based on tolerance, respect, empathy and perseverance. When students feel safe in an environment, they will be more willing to get out of their comfort zone and use their limitations as tools to achieve their goals and create new opportunities.

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

If I could change something for my students, it would be standardized testing. Many students have the false notion intelligence or capability of learning something is defined by these tests. Students have different ways of learning and showing what they learned. These tests create a major stress in students, and they feel an immense pressure of performing well on them. I agree that these tests can be used to identify areas of improvement and individual needs, but it doesn’t consider external factors that may affect a student’s performance on a test. For instance, students may not feel comfortable taking exams or not good at taking tests or even going through situations at home. I believe that it is our role and ability as teachers to understand and recognize student’s knowledge and capabilities that may be unable to be demonstrated on a test.

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 mission focused on fighting education inequity and they are taking part on developing future leaders inside and outside of schools. One of the most important roles that TFA plays is recruiting leaders as agents of change and providing them the support they need; teachers that believe that every kid has the potential to succeed. Teach For America relies on creating a diverse network of leaders, not only teachers, that are committed to confront educational inequity and advocate for the oppressed and discriminated against.

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

I had a lot of personal experiences involving my students, and I’ve learned so much from them, where they come from and their lives. I have a memorable experience with each one of my students ranging from seeing the moment when they fell in love with science to showing how proud they were of a project or work they did. Each of these amazing experiences evidenced that each and every one of my students have a special characteristic that I really admire: perseverance. They will never give up; they are always looking for opportunities to grow and do better and they always showed me that the things that they’ve been through defined them as outstanding and resilient students. Most importantly, I have lovely memories of students learning from each other and advocating for what they believe. They were not afraid to show empathy and understanding, and they were always willing to help others, and this is what makes them powerful agents of change.

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.