Viva la Voz

I sat in my third grade classroom staring at the board with a panic in my chest. I was worried that the kids would think I was less intelligent because I didn’t know how to pronounce a word. 

You’d think I was a student, but I was the teacher.

I had 30 English Language Learners staring at me as I nervously read the passage on the board aloud. The mentor teacher observing my classroom heard me stumble and said, “Ms. Villeda, do you need some help? It’s pronounced toe-bah-gah-ning.” 

I paused and then decided to lean in to this moment. Instead of worrying, I used this mishap as an opportunity to teach my students about context clues.

Although most of my inner-city Latino students had no concept of tobogganing, I showed them to use images and Spanish cognates to try and figure out the pronunciation and meaning of a word. 

The truth is, looking back at that moment brings back memories from earlier in life, as well. Before I was a teacher, I was a student, sitting in that exact same room 15 years earlier with the exact same fear — incorrectly pronouncing an English word. 

Here’s a little background…

Although I was born in Chicago, my immigrant Guatemalan family didn’t speak English at home. That meant my only exposure to the English language was at school (and through the popular children’s cartoon Arthur, on PBS). 

When I visited family in Guatemala they’d ask me how to say things in English. I made up the word “epitone” so they would think I knew the language. It became my nickname! The first word I ended up learning was ‘scissors’ from Genelou in kindergarten.

The language barrier made my first few years of school tough. I remember in kindergarten, I was given a time-out after asking a friend to translate what the teacher was saying. In first grade, I failed my hearing exam because I couldn’t understand the instructions of when to lift my arm up. By second grade, I was placed on the lowest academic track in my grade — which meant I wouldn’t have access to higher-level classes. This would limit my high school choices and, in turn, my chances of getting into certain colleges. 

It’s because of these school-age experiences that I became a teacher.

When my students learned tidbits about my life, I’d see their eyes light up because they had never met a teacher who understood what they were going through. We could connect on our shared experiences of having three generations under one roof, translating documents for our parents, and — of course – sharing tamales with family and friends at Christmas time.

Thanks to these shared experiences, I was able to forge deeper connections with my students. Empathy is essential in fostering a positive social-emotional environment. Research shows that when students feel safe, known, and understood, it leads to stronger academic outcomes. 

Sharing so many experiences with my students put me in a unique and rewarding position. It’s those connections that inspired me to find a way to help students on a larger scale. That’s how I ended up at Summit Learning. I now have a seat at a table where I can advocate for them in an exciting, groundbreaking way. 

In my current work, I challenge my team to think about representation of students like me and so many others in the curriculum we create and how we represent ourselves as an organization. I push school leaders and teachers to have high expectations of English Language Learners and provide them with classroom strategies to support their growth and development. I advocate for family engagement practices that are accessible to parents with limited English or understanding of the American school system. 

My voice counts, and so does yours.

There’s a saying in Spanish that I learned growing up: Calladita te ves más bonita. It means, “You look prettier when you’re quiet.” 

Staying quiet is not an option for me. When I look around the room and realize I’m the only Latina, I am reminded that I represent so much more than just myself. I am a voice for those who cannot or do not yet know how to speak up for themselves. 

To my students…

I feel so honored that all these years later, I still get old students telling me that seeing a teacher who shared their life experiences gave them hope. They say it showed them that going to college and having a successful career is possible for them, too. 

And you know what? Those same students who saw me struggle with the word “tobogganing” are now seniors in high school, preparing for college and their future careers. I hope that having a teacher like me inspired them to be proud of the experiences that led them to where they are today. I hope that they, too, are equipped with the confidence and empathy to advocate for others. I also hope they invite me to their high school graduations!