Tristan Reynolds is a 2021 Teach For America Corps Member who teaches 8th grade English Language Arts/Reading (ELAR) at the Academy for Academic Enhancement Middle School in Rio Grande City.
What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America and choose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley?
In 2020, I was living abroad when it became an international news item that the United States was dealing with a serious teacher shortage. I saw Teach For America (TFA) as a way to come back to the U.S. and contribute to solving this problem in a concrete way. I chose TFA in particular because they have a strong reputation for producing teachers that quickly become effective, and they provide new teachers with strong training and support in working for excellence and equity in their schools.
I ended up in the Rio Grande Valley because one of the most important considerations was, for me, that I live in an area where students are exposed to different languages and cultures, and where their education can reflect that richness. One of the real benefits of teaching in the Valley is that many students come to class prepared to engage in not just one but two languages. I can tell you that this is far more unusual in the United States than you might think! Living in a bilingual area helps students think flexibly and creatively, and it also equips them with linguistic skills that will help them in their academic and professional careers. It’s an honor to be a part of that educational process.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve come to learn about education during your time as a classroom leader?
Something that I understood intellectually, but hadn’t really lived through in a concrete way, was the lack of flexibility that teachers in Texas, as well as many other states, face. Their students, and their performance as teachers, are assessed almost entirely based on a single, one-question-type STAAR or end-of-year test, often of questionable relevance to the real world. This is out of step with both international and domestic best practices, it penalizes students who are still learning English, and it’s a major driver of the teacher shortage in the state. Teachers can also be caught in political battles, which in turn have a negative effect on them and their students. Especially for students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, the importance of flexible and creative teaching, that meets students where they’re at and builds them up, cannot be overstated. Bureaucracy can often make teaching in that way more difficult than it needs to be.
If you could change one thing for your students, what would it be?
If I could make a real change to the curriculum my students complete, it would be integrating Spanish as a core area class, on equal footing with English, mathematics, history, and science in the secondary-level curriculum. The cognitive and professional benefits of bilingualism are very well-established in the academic research, but many school districts in Texas only offer truly bilingual education through elementary school, even though early adolescence is universally understood to be one of the most important developmental periods for ensuring that a person can achieve real fluency in a language. What lessons are you learning now that will help you continue to work toward educational equity in the future?
I think that the most important lesson I’m taking away from my time in TFA is the importance of expert and autonomous teachers. We know that the students who face the greatest challenges — including poverty, trauma, and discrimination–are those who most need a strong, supportive education. Delivering that kind of education requires teachers who have extensive expertise in not only their content area, but in effective pedagogical instruction, childhood cognitive development, and the ways in which childhood trauma can impede effective learning. Unfortunately, in Texas we’re dealing with such a serious teacher shortage that building up a core group of expert educators could take decades, especially if political and job-related pressures continue to push out some of the most experienced educators the state has to offer. In the future, I want to focus my work on building up that group of educators, and keeping them in classrooms where they’ll be most effective, for the students who need them the most.
Can you share an anecdote or personal experience from your classroom or school?
One of the things that’s remarkable about my students is that they’re really able to cultivate a reflective attitude. One of the classes I teach is designed around STEM-based projects; students have to work in groups and really be careful to utilize their time effectively. At the start of the year, most groups weren’t able to finish building their designs in the time they had. As they were testing their mostly-completed designs, I asked them to reflect in their journals about ways that the building process could have gone better. Almost all of the students independently identified time management as their weak area, and when we went on to the next project, each group was much more deliberate about dividing up necessary tasks, and almost everyone finished ahead of schedule. When I asked them why, they described how being able to reflect on a problem, without being blamed or punished for it, helped them avoid making the same mistake in the future. That’s really quite a mature thing for a group of 13-year-old students to understand, and it’s an attitude that’s really going to help them succeed in high school, university, and beyond.
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 twoyear 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