I sat in my third grade classroom staring at the board with 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. Before I was a teacher, I was a student, sitting in that exact same room 15 years earlier with the exact same fear of pronouncing an English word incorrectly.
Then, I decided to lean into this moment. Instead of worrying, I used this mishap as an opportunity to teach my students about context clues. I showed them how to use images and Spanish cognates to try and figure out the pronunciation and meaning of a word.
A Language Barrier Makes School Difficult
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 my favorite children’s cartoons on television.
The language barrier made my first few years of school difficult. 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 for when to lift up my arm. 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 over 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. And these connections inspired me to find a rewarding and unique 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 how to represent 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 for English-Language Learners and demonstrate 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.
Our Voices Matter
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.” But 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.
My voice counts, and so does yours.
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!
Arelys Alcozer is a school and district success manager at Summit Learning where she supports school leaders and teachers with their implementation of the program. She has over a decade of experience in education and a master's degree in teaching with a focus on bilingual education. Arelys has taught third to sixth grade in her hometown—Chicago, ...