From Forgotten ELL to Successful Educator
Growing up in the inner city, not knowing the language and facing what I now have understood to be some level of poverty have shaped me to be who I am today. I can sit here and tell you what a great person I am and why teaching is the very.best.thing.in.the.world, but I prefer to tell you about what led me down this path and why it matters.
I had what I like to call a “solid” childhood. Yes, we moved a lot and we didn’t have access to all the things I have today, but I had two wonderful parents who were extremely hard working and cared very much for my two siblings and me. My father in particular had high regard for education and believed that his children would someday graduate college.
We came to this country when I was 6 years old. I am of Hispanic descent and my native language is Spanish. Lucky for me, I already knew how to read and write in Spanish so the transfer of knowledge from one language to another wasn’t as challenging as coming in with no literacy foundation at all. Little did I know that I was slated to be a forgotten ELL student…
My early elementary years were great. At the time, bilingual education and bilingual programs were very much a thing. I was given amazing teachers who truly cared and who differentiated instruction so that I could have the same content access as my peers. As I progressed into upper elementary, I did not have the same opportunities. One year, I had a teacher who sat at his desk reading the newspaper all day while I, along with my friends fooled around. This lasted the entire year. Needless to say, I did not acquire any new knowledge that school year. Sadly, this was not the only year I was deprived of a learning experience. I was a forgotten ELL student.
Later on, I was mainstreamed into an English only classroom. By that time, I was already fluent in conversational English, but my academic language knowledge was poor due to my “lost years.” I did not understand many of the concepts my teacher spoke of and I felt lost. I remember one time my teacher was preparing us for a project. We were to take on the role of meteorologists and she would record us. The day of the project presentation, I came to school in my nicest outfit ready to wow. I was taken aback when the teacher whipped out a tiny voice recorder. Up to that point, the word “recording” only meant video recording to me and in my limited understanding I had confused one thing with another. This seems like a simple mistake, but experiences like these flooded my years of schooling.
I can say that the one thing that saved me during those rough years was my passion for reading. That passion led me to pick up book after book and to become self-taught in some ways. My vocabulary acquisition, my grammar, spelling, and understanding of the language slowly improved and it started to show in the work I produced. The one area I continued to struggle with was in my spoken English. I had learned academic terminology through reading and not because I had actually heard someone use them. This meant that my pronunciation was incorrect and more often than not, I chose to speak simply so as not to embarrass myself when pronouncing words incorrectly.
It wasn’t until high school that I found myself and all because of ONE teacher. I can still hear his voice every time he addressed me by my last name. I also remember how angry I would get at him when he would return a paper to me completely marked up by his infamous red pen and he would mouth, “Ms. Torres, I know you can do better.” The problem was, I didn’t know I could do better. I would look at my peers’ work and wonder how and why they were so smart and why I couldn’t produce the same level of work, if not better. I was smart. I was driven. Why couldn’t I do it? Then I discovered that I could! My teacher showed me that I could do it because he didn’t “water” content down for me and he never allowed me to give up. He offered me opportunity after opportunity to do better and to be better and each time, I took it.
By the second semester of my Freshman year, I was enrolled in mostly advanced placement classes; not because I was a scholar, but because I had been taught to believe I could do it. And do it I did! I learned that I had license to start a sentence with the word “and” like I just did in the previous sentence and I learned that I was capable. Not only that, but I was also given the open door to finally start believing my father every time he said I would be a college graduate. I was no longer that forgotten ELL student back in Elementary School.
College was not a walk in the park. I went to a prestigious college in Boston which in layman’s term simply means, I went to an expensive college in Boston. I was ready to conquer the world, except I didn’t have a conquerable-worthy bank account and neither did my parents. Soon enough, the out-of-pocket expenses began to pile up and my parents couldn’t keep up. I was the first person in my family to go to college and in the blink of an eye it was all over.
It had a devastating effect on me. It had an even greater effect on my parents. My father, who only spoke of education my entire life felt as though he had let his little girl down.
How do you sit your child down and tell them that their dream is too expensive?
I could bore you with the details of my multiple transfers from affordable college to affordable college in pursuit of an adequate education, but I’ll paraphrase. From the time I graduated high school to the time I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, it was 11 years. I’ve heard of 5 year colleges, but never 11.
During year 5 of my education pursuit, my husband and I decided we were ready to be parents. During the same year, my father got diagnosed with cancer. I was 3 months pregnant when my father went to be with the Lord. The loss of education I described in the previous paragraphs does not compare to the pain of losing one of the most important people in my life.
On May of 2013, I proudly held a Master’s degree in my hand and the name on the front was my own. I dedicated it to my father.
Fork in The Road
I didn’t always want to be a teacher. I was the kid in class that always said I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. Turns out, I hate the sight of blood, so there’s that. I ended up working as a teacher’s aide when I started college simply because it would help pay for my tuition, or so I thought.
But, I fell in love! I fell in love with students. I fell in love with books. I fell in love with the human interactions and the wow moments and the light bulb moments, and the moments where students hug you unexpectedly and tell you how much you matter. Mostly I fell in love because I was given the opportunity to reflect my father’s passion for education and to reflect my high school teacher’s attitude towards students. I wanted to be the teacher that looked at a student afflicted by poverty or who was a second language learner and be able to say “I believe in you. You can be someone great.”
Today I am an accomplished teacher with an amazing husband who is beyond supportive and two beautiful daughters that make my world spin on its axis. I can sit and cry about my hardships, and although the educational neglect I faced is inexcusable, I learned from it. I had to learn how to dissect books on my own and do higher order thinking without prompting. That led me to who I am today. I can look at standards and curriculum and unpack them naturally. I can see things that are not always so obvious to others and I can think outside the box when it comes to differentiation. Why? Because I was once the student that needed those strategies.
I’ve been working with what many label as a “tough” population of students for over 10 years. I’m not saying it’s easy. It is a challenge, but it is worth it! I know many teachers who are burned out. The expectations are extremely high and the resources are often times scarce. Throw in the lack of respect for educators that runs rampant (mainly on social media) and you have a recipe that spells out D.E.F.E.A.T!
Two years ago, my team and I began creating in depth math and ELA lessons. One of my colleagues mentioned that I should use my talents to help other teachers and that I should look into Teachers Pay Teachers. I laughed! A lot! Me? Offer help to other teachers? Her reply: “You do it for me all the time. Why not do it for others?” I put it off and didn’t entertain the idea. At the end of the school year, this beautiful colleague of mine gave me a TPT gift card with a large sum and told me it was to help fund the clipart I would need to create the resources I would sell. So began BuggyForFirst which has now transitioned to Primary Cornerstone. Look at me now! I have a website, for goodness sakes! I don’t even know how that happened other than by the grace of God.
If you’re a teacher and you’re tired, I want to connect with you. Maybe you have no idea how to set up your ELA block? I want to connect with you. Do the words formative & summative assessments, guided reading, higher order thinking, growth mindset, cognitively guided instruction, differentiation, organization, planning, or management make your head want to explode? I want to connect with you. I’ve been where you are now and well, some days I’m still there. I believe there is strength in numbers.
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Feel free to take a gander through the site and read up on topics of interest to you. I write about faith and education because if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t be able to practice my craft without my faith. I love to give you insight into the world of teaching and to really share my heart in terms of my faith and the power we have as educators. I’ve listed some of my favorite posts below…
Guess what? I will also be making videos! I am a very visual person and I’m guessing that some of you may be also.
Thank you for reading and getting to know my story a little better. I’ve learned that every story matters and I want to know yours. Let’s connect! Send me a message at Kay@PrimaryCornerstone.com. I love messages!