Many of us can point to one or more teachers who took an interest in seeing us succeed, who went that extra effort to help us through a difficult time, or who encouraged us to reach our fullest potential. For Latino Heritage Month, we wanted to interview one such teacher.
Pa’delante had the opportunity to interview an amazing, committed, and highly enthusiastic and energetic young Latina teacher. Meet Araceli Leon, kindergarten teacher at Monroe Elementary School and President of the Latin American Teachers Association of San Francisco (LATA).
(Full disclosure: Pa’delante was ready to hear stories of distress resulting from coronavirus challenges, providing online teaching, etc. Instead, Araceli remained upbeat and focused on the needs of her class. We next tried to address budget issues that, no doubt, impact SFUSD in difficult ways. Again, Araceli was full of smiles, and exuded positivity and patience. The woman was unbreakable and made us wish to return to our own kindergarten days with Araceli as our teacher).
Araceli shared her version of what kids need during these difficult times. “During normal times, kids need unconditional love; during COVID, kids need unconditional love.” (I mean, the woman was unrelentingly cheerful!) She noted the importance of working with a child’s caregiver in order to place the child at the center; both need to be in constant communication for the child to do well. This also comforts the parent to know their child will be loved and respected. Araceli knows she is successful when she hears parents say: “'Your maestra is your second mom. Listen to her.' It is an honor for any teacher to know parents trust you with their child."
Through the clear joy she felt in speaking about her kids, Araceli (finally!) confessed that it’s hard not to be physically present with your class. Here’s how our conversation went.
Araceli: How do you help them learn how to hold a pencil, learn kindness, or concepts like community? When they fall or need help and their parents aren’t around, they look to us. Educators want to be with their kids. It’s why we're willing to go into debt, buy extra school supplies, and take on more than we can.
Pa’delante: Still, if Zoom meetings with our own colleagues is difficult, online meetings with a group of kindergarteners must be insane, right?
Araceli: Every teacher has a different process, but I don’t mute my kids. I want to hear their voices. It’s also an opportunity to teach them how to respect other people’s voices.
Pa’delante: Yes, but aren’t they always fidgety and noisy?
Araceli: I try to make our online classroom as routine-based as possible. They still have to let me know when they need to go to the bathroom or get a class of water. They raise their hand, and I let them know it’s okay to go and come back. I will ask one of them to stay quiet when someone is speaking just as I would in our regular class.
Pa’delante: That sounds amazing, but aren’t there more behavioral issues that teachers have to address as a result of COVID-19 and online teaching?
Araceli: Kids can hold a lot of anxiety that they don’t know how to express. It’s hard to have authentic kinder-level (teacher-speak for kindergarten-level) conversations about Black Lives Matter, for example. We still have those conversations; it’s great to hear them and what they’re thinking as a way of learning.
Pa’delante (thinking): Wow…
Araceli (still full of energy): I was proud that LATA put out a statement supporting Black Lives Matter. I’ve also been excited to see different affinity groups in SFUSD collaborate and put out joint statements of support and speak at SFUSD Board meetings. Good things have been happening.
Araceli: In the beginning it was a little hard because there was a lack of technology. A lot of the older kids received priority to get technology, but the younger kids 2nd grade and younger weren’t prioritized. As teachers, some of us had to go to parents’ houses to help with technology; it’s been hard for families.
Pa’delante: What can the community do to support Latinx teachers?
Araceli: I think, as teachers, we’re always excited about kids, loving them, loving learning, and trying and experimenting new ideas to support their learning. What’s important is that we stay asset-based. As teachers, we all need to do well if our kids are going to do well. We just want to be supported.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Araceli was born and raised in the Mission. She gravitated to teaching early on, helping her father at the Mission Cultural Center when she was a teenager. She acknowledges she may have overachiever tendencies, but in truth, her kids and their parents probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
Teachers have a remarkable calling. They’re one of the only professions where we entrust strangers with our most vulnerable and precious loved ones: our children. If Araceli’s exuberance is any indication of how well our children will fare, we can all let out a big sigh of relief.
To Araceli, LATA, and all SFUSD teachers, we extend un gran Pa’delante abrazo for your tireless energy, dedication, and care for our community’s children and youth.