Andrea Rivas is a Teach For America 2020 corps member teaching 10th grade English at Donna High School.
What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America and choose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley?
I’m from the Valley and always knew I would commit my life to giving back to my community. Once I understood Teach For America was an education organization devoted to doing just that in various low-income communities across the country, I knew my life’s purpose was to begin this journey. My mother, who immigrated here from Mexico, instilled in me that the only way to break generational cycles of poverty was through education. I relay her wisdom to all of my students and utilize her story as inspiration. Her beliefs have led to my commitment to education and community service and shaped the journey I’m on today.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve come to learn about education during your time as a classroom leader?
I have learned a lot of painful truths since becoming an educator. One main concern is the lack of mental health resources, or knowledge of existing resources, available within our education system. During the pandemic, it was daunting to see students struggling with mental health and merely accepting poor mental health without knowing how or where to receive resources. This experience inspired me to create crisis and mental health resource guides for students who need support.
It also prompted me to teach students the importance of self and community care.
If you could change one thing for your students, what would it be?
Unfortunately, in a low-income community, there are many factors which put my students at a disadvantage. However, if I could only change one thing, I would change the way my students see themselves. I wish more than anything that my students could see the potential, promise, and wisdom each one of them carries. Although I remind them how honored I am to be a part of their lives, they are often unaware of just how special each one of them is in their unique abilities, talents, and intelligence. I want all my students to realize just how valuable their voices and their knowledge are and how the world needs leaders like them in order to bring about positive change.
What lessons are you learning now that will help you continue to work toward educational equity in the future?
There are many moments, experiences, and children who have shaped me as a person and educator. Additionally, I am continually learning that our education system is deeply flawed and does not equally serve all students in this country. I see first-hand students who are funneled into lower-track classrooms, dropping out, or even going to prison, and I think some of those outcomes could be prevented through an excellent and equitable education. Consequently, I realize there is much work to be done.
Our education system is merely a reflection of the inequities in our society. In order to reimagine the education system, we must also challenge our unjust society. The only individuals capable of changing society are our youth. Therefore, an education which is clear-eyed and prepares students to fully engage in society is the only way to generate true justice for our marginalized students.
Can you share an anecdote or personal experience from your classroom or school?
Of the many touching moments I have experienced in my short time as an educator, one moment in particular stands out to me. My trans and queer students are constantly healing my queer heart with their words and wisdom. Last year, despite being completely virtual, one non-binary student found the courage to tell the class about their gender identity. Each of their peers sent acceptance, praises, and support. Every class member supported this student, vowed to protect them, and loved them for who they were. At the end of the school year, this particular student shared an animated graphic of each of the class members hugging and saying goodbye, with a touching song playing in the background. I became overwhelmed with tears at the thought that, although in a virtual environment, this student still felt safe and loved enough to — for the first time — disclose their true identity.
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.