Teach for America educator profile: RGV native teaches reading to sixth-graders at PSJA ISD

Jessica Gonzalez is a Teach for America educator. (Courtesy photo)

Jessica Gonzalez is a 2019 Teach For America (TFA) corps member teaching sixth-grade reading at Raul Yzaguirre Middle School in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District.

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

Both of my parents immigrated from Mexico to the United States to ensure my sister and I were afforded better educational opportunities and access to a higher quality of life. From a very young age, my parents instilled in me a passion for education, which sparked my interest in public service. My K-12 schooling experience in the RGV along with the unwavering mentorship from my third grade teacher, at the time a Teach For America corps member and now a current Michigan State University professor in K-12 Educational Administration & Policy, further solidified my lifelong commitment to expand educational opportunity for children, especially those in the RGV. Being in Teach For America provides me with the tools to work toward disrupting the long-standing inadequacy my community continues to face in education. Most importantly, being an educator in the RGV is an honor because I get to invest in the next generation of leaders, nurturing their talents and potential to effectively support their participation in society and expanding access to opportunities that are too often unequally distributed to them.

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

As an educator, it is imperative to reflect and anticipate challenges for students. Every day in the classroom is important, because you are constantly thinking on your feet, clearing misconceptions and crafting digestible material for different types of learners. Every second in the classroom is crucial and surprisingly there is never enough time. However, this incredible journey continues to push me to show up for my students everyday.

The measurement of school quality and accountability has been surprising; but I don’t think it should rely as heavily on standardized testing. While mandated exams are a tool to see the academic progress of students, it should not cause schools to narrow their curriculum to achieve “proficiency.” Unfortunately, an overemphasis on one exam can cause schools to sacrifice opportunities to promote creativity, develop critical thinking skills and problem solving to increase the chances of students succeeding in their career path. Standardized tests are important but educators should be having multi-faceted conversations with their students about their growth and achievement throughout the year.

Sixth grade is absolutely the best! Yes, quite the statement but I can not imagine teaching a different grade level. It is truly a privilege to encourage their endless curiosity and witness brilliant young minds in my classroom.

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

The federal, state and local government need to adapt to the unique geographic needs of communities to decrease the stark racial inequalities in economic participation, healthcare, and criminal justice, and to promote effective participation in our democratic government. A targeted P-16 (pre-K to college) program supporting the academic journey of students would provide students with adequate resources from early childhood education through the end of their post-secondary career, honoring their needs and smoothing their academic transitions between various levels of education.

What lessons are you learning now that will help you continue to work toward educational equity in the future?

Unfortunately, the immense disparities in educational opportunity along the lines of race and class continue to be entrenched in society, and remedies have been slow, particularly for marginalized children. It is in the interest of our nation to continue fighting for equal access to education and to ensure a fair opportunity for all children doesn’t seem like a remote possibility. Meanwhile, educators have an opportunity of a lifetime to invest in and guide students throughout their academic journey. My goal is to mentor my students, because I believe mentorship serves as the perfect vehicle to achieve educational equity. It can be done with one student at a time. I encourage all community members to become a mentor.

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

In my classroom, I have always made it a priority to build genuine relationships with my students. I was well aware it would be more challenging creating a space for students this year because of the pandemic — though of course not impossible.

This school year, I had a student who moved from Paraguay to the Valley, so I made sure he felt welcomed and learned about our beautiful home. Soon enough, he started using Valley lingo and would post pictures about his time in Paraguay for other students to see. Students enjoyed learning about his experiences and others loved sharing their own. Throughout the year, his mother and I have been in constant communication and not too long ago, I received a wonderful message from his mother saying: ”My husband and I will be leaving the Valley on June 1 and heading back to Paraguay. (Our child’s) last day will be May 28th but we would like to extend a huge thank you for all you have done this year. We were wondering if we could either have you to our house for dinner or take you out to dinner.” Although I was sad to hear he was leaving, this unexpected and thoughtful gesture continues to remind me of the impact educators can have in the lives of children.

My message to educators: Love your kiddos! They deserve everything this world has to offer, especially your love and support. Shout out to my mentor Madeline Mavrogordato for being the ultimate blueprint for advocacy and a source of endless guidance as I continue my journey in public service!

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.