TFA RGV honors educators after grueling pandemic school year

Alumni Leadership Award recipient Martin Winchester, TFA RGV Executive Director Ana Gonzalez, Texas Workforce Commissioner Julian Alvarez III and Educational Champion Award recipient Dr. Nolan Perez. (Courtesy Photo)

MISSION — Teach for America RGV held its annual Honor Roll Gala April 17, giving teachers and educational leaders from across the Valley a night to reminisce on their careers and look to the future of instruction — especially in light of the very unorthodox 2020-2021 school year.

As usual, the evening was an opportunity to talk about the educational challenges facing students in the Valley and honor three individuals TFA says have made strides toward addressing those challenges.

“Students want and deserve an educational experience that is relevant,” TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard said. “That helps them be prepared to lead and thrive in this ever changing society. And the future of learning must be rooted in equity; it must be learner centered; and it must be fueled by strong and enduring relationships. And tonight’s honorees are living into that future.”

The three honorees were Martin Winchester, who received the Alumni Leadership Award, the Texas Workforce Commission, which received the Institutional Catalyst Award, and Dr. Nolan Perez, who received the Educational Champion Award.

The efforts of those individuals and the board were underscored by the challenges presented by trying to teach during a pandemic year, Beard said.

“Their efforts — all of our efforts — have never been more important,” she said. “This pandemic has threatened progress in every community across this country. It has widened long standing gaps in inequity that exist; not only in education, but in every sector of our society, and it’s impact has been especially traumatic for our young people. Particularly our children of color and children growing up in low-income communities and their families.”

The honorees were lauded and they accepted their awards graciously, thanking the people who’d made their success possible.

The true impact of the pandemic was perhaps best illustrated by the woman who spoke after the honorees: Melina Recio, a TFA alumna and English teacher from McAllen.

Recio spoke about what she’d watched her students go through over the past school year. She talked about students studying at cramped kitchen tables in multi-family homes. She talked about kids turning in their homework from the parking lot of fast food restaurants with free WiFi and about students having to get jobs at those fast food restaurants to help support their families.

Poignantly, Recio talked about grief. She talked about two different students penning her notes in one week about a family member’s death, one writing about their mother and the other about their grandfather. They wrote about being lost without them and the desperate, aching sorrow those deaths left behind.

Recio said three of her students lost a parent in the past year, many lost grandparents, at least five lost a family member to suicide and several of her students have been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.

“And I have lost count of the number of parents I have cried with on the phone,” she said. “‘I just don’t know what to do anymore,’ they often say. To which I respond, ‘Neither do I.’”

Figuring out what to do, Recio said, is what has to happen. Figuring out what to do is the burden Valley teachers and educators have to bear.

“Because hopelessness is not an option,” she said. “Defeat is not an option. Our kids are counting on us.”