May 20, 2015

Teachers Talk Back: Maeli Montecinos

Maeli Montecinos currently teaches the fourth, fifth and sixth grade Special Day Class for students with specific learning disabilities at Jaime Escalante Elementary in Cudahy, Los Angeles, Calif. She has been teaching for nine years, both in general education and special education settings, and has previous experience singing in a cumbia band, which has inspired her to draft and teach a music curriculum at her school. In this conversation with E4E-Los Angeles Outreach Director Danielle DeSantis,  she shares how her transition from social work has informed her approach to teaching.

This interview has been condensed and edited with the interviewee’s approval.

Danielle DeSantis (DD): Why did you make the transition from social work to teaching?

Maeli Montecinos (MM): I always wanted to be a teacher. I came to this country when I was 20, with very limited English skills, so my opportunities for college were limited. The way for me to pay for college was to work full time. I had many different jobs. I worked in a dental office as an assistant, then at a school as a teacher’s aide, and then I became a social worker, determining eligibility for medical and welfare applicants. I loved it. It was focused on helping the community and I learned about the resources that were available.

 As a social worker, I began to train staff at the county level and I loved it, which confirmed that my passion was teaching. The knowledge I gained while working for the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services helped me to reach parents and recognize social issues. I could recommend agencies and services to help my students. Now, I am part of the Parent Engagement Committee, which helps to increase participation and communication between parents, the school, and the community as a whole in order to achieve student success.

DD: It sounds like your path to becoming a teacher was challenging. What kept you going?

MM: I had a goal in mind. When I went to college, I met single mothers with three or five kids, working full-time, going to school full-time and raising their families.  I also met people with physical disabilities – some elderly – working hard to earn a college degree. When someone would come to me and say they admired me for learning English, I pointed to these people because I think that they are real heroes.

Sometimes we let ourselves make excuses not to reach our goals. But when we focus on goals, the hurdles seem more manageable. I try to teach my students this. When they understand their disabilities or disadvantages, then they can make a plan and jump directly through the hurdles.  And it’s actually easier because they know exactly what they need to do. I’ve met teachers and other professionals with learning disabilities and medical conditions such as ADHD, who have succeeded in life despite their disadvantages, and I always share these stories with students in my classroom, so they can be as inspired as I am, and so they can see that being in special education doesn’t mean they are not going to succeed in life.

DD: What’s one success that stands out?

MM: Working in special education, I am able to work with students for long periods of time. One of my students that I have had since third grade is culminating sixth grade with me this year, and he’ll be in middle school next year. When he came to me, he had very poor behavior, and the first year was tough. But, after meeting the family and understanding what exactly was causing his behavior, I learned he was trying to reach out. Once I was able to target the behavior, he grew in all academic areas. I got to see how much he has grown and improved over the years. It is incredible.  

DD: Why did you become a member of E4E?

MM: It is a community of like-minded educators. I want to grow in my profession. Sometimes you don’t know how to find other teachers focused on growth. You can grow by learning from colleagues, and when you get together, you have a greater opportunity to help each other.