"This is the best possible thing that I could be doing."
Mr. Zavala talks to us about ESL, virtual teaching, Latinx Heritage Month, and the joys and struggles of being an educator
As we kick off a new season of hybrid learning, Erik Zavala, G.W. Carver Teacher, took the time to talk to us about teacher life in 2020. Our conversation ranged from ESL to virtual teaching, from Latinx Heritage Month to the joys and struggles of being an educator. Collegiate is rooting for him, his students, and every educator and child launching into hybrid learning this quarter. Here’s what Erik had to say:
What have been some of your greatest joys as a teacher?
Pretty much just being in the classroom with the kids really has been a huge joy. Seeing them learn new things that they didn’t know before, getting to know them a lot more, getting to know new things from them is something I’ve enjoyed a lot...Since being at Carver, I’ve learned how to better understand and communicate with students who are from Central America. My family is from Mexico and that’s a whole different range of [cultural] communication in how things are dealt with. Learning about that and being open to it has been something that I’ve enjoyed and grown from…I’ve told kids, don’t let me push too much of my traditions or culture on you, just let me know if I’m doing that. Kids have been really great about it.
This is your second year with Carver— what has your experience been like teaching on this team?
At Carver last year I was primarily focusing on ESL. I was teaching two blocks of ESL level 2 and 3. This year I’ve had the opportunity to teach beyond the context of ESL in reading intervention. There’s a whole range of other scholars who have those needs. This year I’m also still focused on English Language Learners (ELL). I’ve been working with my coach to figure out the best way to support students who are ELL in coming to class and doing their work.
At Carver, there’s been a huge range of different countries of origin, but the majority of scholars who are ELL are from Honduras. We have some scholars who are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and some of Nicaragua as well.
One that has helped me so much is building relationships with scholars: being able to get to know them, being able to talk to their families...Even though I had already been teaching two years, my first year felt like the very first year all over again...When I was building relationships with the scholars, I saw so much of an increase in them being comfortable to come to me and tell me about what they need: whether it’s academic (“hey I’m having problems and I don’t know how to tell my teacher”) or social (“hey I’m having problems with this other student but I just want to focus on school”). Positive relationships made a huge change that helps even now virtually. Those relationships are pretty much still there. Parents and scholars will still text me and call me to ask “Hey, do you still work at the school? I haven’t heard from you.” And I have to be like, “Yeah, but you moved up a grade! That’s why you’re not hearing from me! I teach 10th grade.” I see how much those relationships are valuable and I still try to be as involved as I can and still help them even if they’re not in my class anymore. I try to pop-in to all the other grades just to say, “Hey I’m still here. I’m not going away.” It helps kids feel motivated to stay in school because they know someone is there to help them. Being at Carver, all the teachers are like that. Kids know, “I don’t just have Mr. Zavala’s support. I have it from every single teacher.”
What brought you to teaching?
I won’t lie. I did not want to teach. Teaching was not something I thought I would be good at or would have the patience or ability to do. During my senior year of college, I was majoring in Spanish Linguistics and also Biology...I was considering what I could do that I might enjoy and someone told me about Teach for America (TFA)....As I learned more about it I got excited to do this job and go somewhere new. I’m originally from Gettysburg, PA. I went to Penn State and that’s where TFA found me. When I got to [TFA] Institute at summer school, even though it was so hard working all day, getting up so early, and trying to be prepped for the next day, I just loved working with the kids. When I started my first day of teaching during the school year I was nervous but pretty much every day since I’ve always looked forward to being at the school. There’s never a day when I’m thinking “don’t go”...I know that this is the best possible thing I could be doing. I fell in love with the kids and every day I fall in love with the role even more.
Tell me about virtual teaching? What have been some of the bright spots? Road blocks?
Some bright spots about virtual teaching is giving students computer access and using that tech every single day. This will help them when it’s time for them to seek jobs. It’s been cool to see how fast kids have picked up on the technology: being able to see them sign into Canvas, access materials, participate in virtual lessons has been wonderful to see. Because during orientation, we identified some lags in skills and in the tech systems that we needed to fix. Once we addressed those, the kids got it. They were very into using the chat [on Zoom], using the messages [on Canvas], and using the private messages. Emailing has gotten so much better. It was something that kids did not know how to do before: the entire body of their message was in the subject line. Now I’m reading the new emails kids are sending me and I’m like “Yes! You’ve really got the hang of this!” It makes me so happy to see that, yes, they’re getting used to it more and how they’re growing into these new skills...mastering every single small thing that they can.
Some blockages that we have are pretty much related to attendance. Some kids didn’t have internet when we first went virtual. We did provide hotspots and that was great...but the thing was that some kids really do live in areas where the hotspot doesn’t get any good signal, not even if you put in a traditional Cox router—you still probably wouldn’t get good signal. And so those kids were trying to manage and get everything done on time even though everything was loading super slowly. We were asking them, “what can we troubleshoot?” There were multiple different ways to try to fix it, like using your phone to try to access the work. But sometimes that wasn’t working for all kids.
Another trouble point was all the teachers were trying to learn new platforms like Canvas, Clever, etc. I just had to think: “Okay, I just have to take this one-by-one.” I’m still learning. I’m hopeful we’ll quickly get to the day where we can all say, “Okay, we know how to do this online learning thing. We know how to troubleshoot any issue.”
Language barriers are still a problem virtually. All the materials have translation options, but the problem is whenever teachers [in non-ESL classes] are speaking it’s completely in English. I do feel like it’s a great motivator for kids to hear and practice their English, but the thing is, when they’re following along in class, I don’t think they are following as fast as they or their teachers would like. This seems like a bigger barrier over Zoom in particular...Where we are with this at the moment is trying to differentiate on a case-by-case basis and trying to offer accommodations that are as individualized as possible. Pretty much it has to be case-by-case.
Tell me about virtual events this month?
This year we’ve tried to collaborate with the entire network to figure out how to build something new and special that we can do during this month, Hispanic Heritage month. We sent out emails offering teachers a sheet that spotlighted people who are of Latinx or Afrolatinx descent who have had a huge impact on the world. The sheets were divided into core subjects so teachers could plug in different factoids into their lessons. That way, every teacher could use it in their class and kids can learn about Latinx history from all different angles as well as in advisory. We also had a movie night to celebrate Hispanic Heritage month and invited everyone to watch Coco on Zoom with us...the message was come and join, enjoy, and take some time to relax after your hard work. I think it was good for the kids to see that we aren’t just about work-work-work all the time virtually. We need some breaks to get fully rested.
How are you/your students feeling about going back to school in person/hybrid soon?
For me personally, I feel a little stepped back in the sense. I know the precautions I need to take and I’m willing to take them. But I just think about how the numbers are still growing and how we don’t have any viable option to ensure 100% safety or even 80%. I feel fine that we are returning. I don’t think it’s the best option for everyone but I know it’s going to be helping a lot of scholars who know that being in school has benefitted them more than virtual teaching. I want to do my part to support those students: “I want to be able to help you, and if that means you coming to the school and my providing whatever I can to get you there academically and personally, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
For my kids, it varies. Some of them are like, “actually no, I’m not comfortable with coming back to school yet so I’ll stay virtual. I’ve been doing really well and I don’t want to mess up my groove.” Others are like, “Okay, I’d rather be at school. I can’t be in the house all the time. My internet is not stable and I know school will have better Wifi, so I definitely want to go to the school.”