Vita A. Tijerina is a 2020 Teach for America RGV Corps Member and fourth-grade bilingual reading teacher at J. S. Adame Elementary School at Donna Independent School District.
TFA asked Vita a few questions about her journey to education, and how she pays it forward in her classroom.
What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America and choose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley?
Choosing the Rio Grande Valley was something that came natural to me. It was all about giving back to the community that gave me everything. I am a proud native of Alamo, Texas. Being a Valley native, I know the potential students have to achieve any goal they set their mind to and all it takes is people believing in them.
The bilingual culture here is extremely prominent, so growing up speaking both Spanish and English was something I never really found special since I was surrounded by many people that were like me. It wasn’t until I left the 956 for college where the culture clash hit me. I was always skeptical about the idea of culture clash since I was living in the RGV my whole life, but let me tell you, it is definitely a real thing. All of the sudden, I was being pointed out for speaking Spanish and not only that, apparently Valley natives have their own accent. I found this very fascinating because it never crossed my mind that the Valley would have a distinct sound. ¡Puro 956!
During my time in undergrad, I was able to become heavily involved in student organizations and met fellow RGV natives. It took me leaving my home to realize how special it really was. The Valley has many hidden beauties and its people are definitely one. The spirit and attitude that one draws from living here is very unique. I want to empower my students and show them that there is more to the world than just the RGV, but for some reason you will always find yourself back here. You take what you give, and I know that this community has built the person I am today. Now, it’s time to pay it forward.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve come to learn about education during your time as a classroom leader?
Being an educator has taught me many things. First and foremost, being a teacher goes way beyond just teaching. It is about constructing an environment where you set up your students for success. The countless hours planning effective and eye-catching lessons in order for the material to be not only grasped, but genuinely comprehended by the students. As an educator, one must always keep in mind that you are the one helping to shape the future of our future leaders. It is not something we can take lightly. This is a role that requires attention to detail and a heart to be compassionate and understanding of and for your students.
Community and environment are crucial in and out of a classroom. Never forgetting that your students and their parents are also going through these challenging virtual times will give you the patience and understanding that you are also not alone. We must become pillars of strength for others to lean on as others become that for us.
If you could change one thing for your students, what would it be?
If I had the power to change one thing, it would be the accessibility to resources. Even before COVID-19, there were many students, including myself, that did not have the resources required to achieve a goal or simply complete an academic assignment. As silly as it sounds, when it came to school projects, the mere fact that some students may have access to computers and printers outside the classroom already made them a bit more successful than those without.
Living in these times, there is no doubt that access to the internet and computers has become essential for student learning. This is why when I teach or assign homework, I do my best to make it easy, accessible, and enjoyable. I keep in mind that to this day, there are still students without access to the internet, so if making detailed packets and calling parents to explain the assignments every time they have a question, then so be it. I want to be more than a teacher for my students and parents, I want to be a resource they use to keep getting ahead.
Building a foundation of trust is where it all has to begin, because without it you really do not have anything. These students and parents must feel like you are approachable to be able to come to you with any doubts or concerns. This is where the real work is at. Once you build that base, you will be able to help and support these individuals in all the ways you are able to.
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?
The role Teach for America has is that of breaking barriers and building up their students. Giving the same opportunities to students from one end of the nation to the other is what will empower them. Each person has potential to be whoever they set their mind to be and providing those resources is what education should be able to do. We as educators are there to guide them and help them take ownership of their learning.
I am grateful for the training and sessions I have gone through with TFA because it opened up my eyes to many things I had overlooked throughout the years. Acknowledging my ignorance was the first step, but it was the process of unlearning certain ideas and concepts that helped me move forward. Learning to unlearn the idea that just because the Valley may be a bit far from the rest of other Texas cities, does not mean we should be in our own bubble. Events happening across the state and the country can and do affect us.
I can confidently say that the ideas and concepts I have learned through TFA I could have definitely learned throughout the years, but I am glad I was exposed to them now. The earlier we are exposed to ideas, concepts, issues, the earlier we can get to work.
Can you share an anecdote or personal experience from your classroom or school?
“¡Nunca voy aprender inglés, no puedo!” These were words of frustration and defeat when I was in the second grade struggling to transition to English instruction. I bring this memory up because it was a story I shared with one of my students. His mother had called me extremely worried because her son had basically given up on school.
Being an English-Language Learner is already tough as it is but being an English-Language Learner with virtual education makes it ten times harder. I understood my student’s frustration, so I decided to set up a conference with him. He was able to vent his emotions and release his anger and frustration. He confided in me and that meant the world to me. I decided to share some of my vulnerability because it was something I felt he deserved to hear. Knowing that his teacher was in his shoes and still persevered gave him that ray of light. I was not learning in the middle of a pandemic, so I did reassure him that I was always going to be a message away. Installing this reassurance into him and his family, I know they will be at more peace because they have someone that will fight for them just like my teachers fought for me.
In the most challenging situations, we experience the additional success of knowing how hard we worked to accomplish our dreams. El temer y la frustración no nos debe detener, al contrario, nos dejan saborear nuestro éxito porque sabemos que no fue fácil llegar ahí.
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.