August 24, 2016

Teachers Talk Back: Aida Berdiel-Batista

Aida Berdiel-Batista works as a fifth- through eighth-grade special education teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar in Bridgeport, CT. In this conversation, Aida discusses her own educational journey, her experience as a bilingual and monolingual special education teacher and her passion for educational equity.

Why did you choose a career in education?

As a child, I always wanted to be a teacher. When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, my parents had pretty traditional gender roles, with my dad working and my mom staying home and raising the kids. My mom was really the perfect mom, and I wanted to be like her in that way, but I also knew from a young age that I wanted to have a career. I didn’t hear a lot about “woman power” as a child, but I always admired women who worked and were active in their communities. I saw being a teacher as a way to have the best of both worlds — a family and make a difference in my community. In my life, I had teachers I admired and wanted to be like. That’s how I got inspired to become a teacher.

What was your journey to becoming a teacher?

Growing up in a small town, I was not exposed to many careers, but I did have an older cousin who was going to school and encouraged me. He would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I would say that I wanted to be a teacher. Then, I would say that I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t afford it, and he would tell me, “Querer es poder,” which loosely means, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Between my cousin and my early experiences at school and church, I was encouraged and inspired to pursue my dreams.

Sadly, I didn’t finish high school, but I was determined to get my GED. During that process, as I helped my peers and had opportunities to teach in front of the whole class, I was reminded of my passion for teaching and had teachers and classmates who told me I was great at making content accessible to others. Those were my first experiences with teaching and learning, and right then, I knew that was what I wanted to see happening over and over again.

Later on, I moved to Connecticut, and I continued pursuing my lifelong dream. First, I got my associate’s degree in early childhood education. At the time, I started working as a preschool teacher and then became a bilingual paraprofessional. As a paraprofessional, I began to work with special education students. I realized that I could help inspire special education students who often felt like they couldn’t achieve their dreams. I could be the encouragement for them that others were for me. That is when I decided to continue my education and become a special education teacher. I am now a certified special education teacher with a master’s degree in curriculum development and a sixth year in educational leadership. I look forward to completing my Ph.D. in the future; in the meantime, I hope I can be to my students what my cousin and teachers were to me — without them, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.

Can you share a little about your work teaching bilingual students and students with special needs? How does your double-specialization benefit your students?

When I decided to go into teaching special education, I noticed there were not many bilingual special education teachers. Language barriers led some students to not be identified, while others were mistakenly placed in special education classes. I think that being bilingual helps me better relate to all students. I’m multicultural, and I can share that with my students and really work to understand their individual cultures and backgrounds.

On occasions, I have felt people did not understand or made assumptions about me because of my accent or background. In a way, that helps me relate to students of color, English language learners. or student with special needs, whom people often people often make assumptions about without really getting to know them. I want to help all students understand that they can succeed, to help them get the mindset that the sky is the limit and to encourage them not to settle for less. Through sharing my own struggles and success, I hope to build my students’ self-efficacy. What a great feeling!

What keeps you motivated in this profession today?

This is not an easy job, but it is a deeply rewarding one. There are several things that keep me motivated. I love the “aha moments.” I love when I notice that a child is interacting with content and I’m able to see learning happen and when I’m able to see that they really understand and apply the material. I also love being the person who helps show children how to reach for more and know that there is a big world out there full of opportunities. I believe that, for many of my students, school isn’t always the happiest place. I am motivated to make my classroom — and the school experience — engaging and welcoming by creating a positive climate. All of these things keep me going back, year after year.

Why did you choose to get involved with E4E?

I’m involved with E4E for my students. Being involved, especially on our school finance equity work, has given me an outlet for speaking out for my students. In the past, I tried to advocate for the students who needed it most — especially my bilingual special education students who need fierce advocates, but in most cases my voice alone wasn’t enough to make changes.

E4E has given me a place where I can say that it isn’t okay that students in many districts don’t have the same materials and resources that students in many other traditional public schools have and where I can advocate on behalf of students who need additional resources to access education. I have a place where I feel like we’re actually making change.

I tell my students all the time that they can dream big and they can do anything they set their minds to. The reality is that the current lack of resources in many districts is a barrier to student success, and I want to advocate for students to have what they need to learn and achieve their dreams. E4E gives me a place to do that!