March 6, 2018

A teacher was the guiding light that protected her from gangs and drugs, now she guides other students in her science classes

The following is an excerpt from Univision’s recent profile of E4E-Chicago member and science teacher, Elaine Sánchez by Juliana Jiménez as part of their Nuestros Maestros Campaign. Click here to read the full story. 

Elaine Sánchez grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park community. In the midst of drugs and gangs, there was a guiding light: her 7th grade teacher. Since then, Elaine now teaches science for 6th grade students at Northwest Middle School in Chicago. As she tells it, I wanted “to be that person that brings light into the dark world in which many students live.” 

“My teacher always pushed me,” she told Univisión News. “She saw my  potential in spite of my absenteeism. She saw my drive and passion and helped me forge ahead, even though I grew up in middle to lower class neighborhood. She would defend me, and helped me get accepted to a ‘good’ university. I did my part and obtained a degree in education.” 

When and how did you decide to become a teacher?

Growing up in a predominantly low-income, Latino and African American community, most of my teachers didn’t look anything like me. It was hard for them to connect with the struggles that take place in an inner-city neighborhood.

Even though they didn’t look like me, I had a couple of teachers that influenced me to go into teaching because they didn’t care what I looked like or where I came from, they were just interested in the intelligence they saw. These teachers made me feel free to express myself, ask questions, and not feel less than anyone else. I wanted to give that inspiration to other kids, as well.

What was your journey like in becoming a teacher?

When I left elementary school where all my friends looked like me and came from similar backgrounds, I wasn’t sure how to adjust to the diversity that high school presented. Being a student at Lane Tech was overwhelming, where I went from being at the top of my class to struggling to balance my studies, my social life, and a part time job. 

As a high school student, I was forced to get out of my comfort zone which was hanging around people that looked like me. It was this awakening experience of meeting new people that led me to join the choir, the concert band, and whatever other clubs I could wiggle my way into. Through these social experiences I was able to build confidence in knowing who I was as an individual. These reflective practices helped me when I went off to college.

When I first entered college, I did not have direction on what a major was, or how to choose one. In my neighborhood, the only professions to choose from were teacher, nurse, or police officer. I originally chose nursing. I took tons of science classes, and enjoyed learning about how things work. It wasn’t until I was in a microbiology class that I decided the medical field was not for me: I was unable to prick my finger for blood typing, so I decided that I needed to change my path. After visiting the counselor, I walked out with a new major--science education! I guess I was better suited to be a teacher, as some of my fondest childhood memories were playing school with my sister and always being the teacher.

My student teaching experience took me back to my old elementary school. I accidentally ran into my 4th grade teacher who was still teaching! She and I had a casual conversation, and after an hour of picking her mind about how she lasted in the same school for over 20 years, she simply said “I enjoy shaping small minds.” It was at that moment that I knew I was on the correct path.

Why do you think it’s important that students can count on Latinx teachers like you in classrooms?

The impact I’m making on my students is being a walking role model for them. I can connect with them because I understand the struggles that come with living in an inner-city neighborhood. The relationships I have built with my students make them more willing to open up to me and more willing to give extra effort in learning.

My background also helps me connect with parents. Parents feel more comfortable expressing their concerns and their home struggles. I think there’s a sense of comfort knowing their child is in the hands of someone who understands.

What have you learned as a teacher? What have you learned from your students?

I have been teaching for 15 years, and one thing I have learned is that teaching is not a cookie cutter profession. Once you master how to teach a group of students, in comes another group and best practices start all over again. I can definitely reflect on my first years of teaching. I really believed that it was one way or no way. I had no idea what differentiation was, or flexible grouping. Students did not get a choice on how they displayed mastery of the skills I taught. Teaching is a profession that has no defined path on how to execute it. Using research based strategies, I have learned to try and try again until I succeed. Success for me is measured through student mastery of the skill I am teaching. 

The students have taught me to be cognizant of their learning styles, and build upon their strengths. Talking with the kids reminds me that they are just kids, and just when you think the students have it easy…they force you to think again. I have become a mother to students who do not have support at home, a counselor for students who need someone to listen to them, and through teaching I still get to be the nurse that heals the wounded. Students have taught me empathy, and how to balance rigor with becoming a nurturing guide to academic success.

I have been at the same school for 15 years, and the main reason I stay is the kids.

What is the most satisfying part of working in education?

The most exciting part about teaching is when students return and express gratitude for the skills I instilled in them during their time with me. I understand that I may not reach every student in a given school year, but when students can be better prepared for school through foundational skills that I taught them, it brings me great joy. When my students smile and get excited for scientific investigations, it reminds me of why I do what I do. If I can influence students to pursue scientific endeavors (academic clubs, college majors, internships, jobs, etc…) through my passion, then I can say that is the most satisfying part of my career.

There are not many Latinos in science careers. If I can help steer a scholar down a scientific path that sets them apart from the rest, then I can say I did my job. I want students to find the connections between what they are learning and the real world.

Tell us an anecdote about a student that you positively impacted?

I have started bringing logical puzzles into the classroom. Recently, I integrated the idea of “escape rooms” into my class where the kids had to “save the world” by opening a locked box through solving problems within an hour. They were so engaged with this activity that I could have left the room and they wouldn’t have noticed.

It was a really impactful lesson for me because they were leading their own learning, having respectful conversations, and building community. At one point, my principal walked in and joined them. I don’t know if they all even realized they were learning.

What are you doing beyond the classroom to help your students?

One of the issues I’m most passionate about is teaching English language learners. I currently have five students who do not speak English and it’s a struggle to have a dual language classroom when there isn’t enough time for dual language lessons.

We have 60 minutes to teach a lesson and if it is in dual language, I really only have 30 minutes. This is what actually pushed me to learn Spanish. I speak Spanish to the point where I can communicate with my students. However, they still need extra attention that they are not currently receiving. We need a system where we can more successfully transition English language learners into the classroom. It would make their educational experiences a lot easier. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to learn.

For the full article, visit Univision.