I am an educator. I have the honor of teaching pre-school in Las Vegas. I get to spend my days with the future. I get to look into their eyes full of hope. I get to empower their minds with questions and challenges.

My family name, Cervantes, carries a long history of proud Mexican leadership.  During the Mexican Revolution, my great-grandfather Eulogio Cervantes, as a young boy, rode alongside Pancho Villa and his Villistas seizing hacienda land to re-distribute to the peasants and soldiers.  For my entire life, I’ve heard stories about my great-grandfather, all that he accomplished and how he worked hard to make a life for my family in the United States.  Like many people in my cultu

In my first year in the classroom, a group of students and I founded the College Readiness Club, aimed at exposing my students to the resources and opportunities that could make college real for them. A year later, in June 2013, we took 22 teenagers from Miami to Boston to experience university life.  This past year, the the tradition continued when Amy Flynn and George Hart, two fellow alums from Miami, brought their groups of students to Boston as well.

When I think back on my nearly six years in the U.S. Army, and look forward to continuing to serve my country as a teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, I’m reminded of President Theodore Roosevelt’s oft-quoted “The Man in the Arena” speech.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles…. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause...”

This “man in the arena” is me. I am someone who believes that though there may be challenges – though I may stumble and fall along the way – ultimately I can make a difference.

 

He is also the 5,300 committed individuals standing beside me as incoming Teach For America 2014 corps members. No amount of naysayers can convince us that – by working in partnership with families and communities – we can’t help build a better future for our students.

We see President Roosevelt’s man when he is already in the arena. But I like to imagine his path there, and those who helped him become the best version of himself.  I’m excited to approach my classroom with individuals from all different backgrounds – while united in mission, such differences make us stronger as a whole.   

Fifty percent of us identify as people of color. One-third are the first in their families to attend college, and 33 percent have graduate school or professional experience. Like me, 100 are veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.

I’m grateful to my military experience for preparing me for the classroom. The Army is an institution built upon a shared mission of service, imparting upon its members  characteristics  particularly useful for educators. From day one of basic training, servicemen and women are immersed in goal-oriented, growth mindsets. We take on various leadership roles throughout our careers, and deal with high stress situations to move operations forward.

(Photo: Flickr)

It almost sounds like a cheesy summer action flick: “Institute ... this time, it’s personal.”

This summer, I am serving as a Corps Member Advisor for the incoming 2014 corps. I am thrilled that institute is in my hometown of Chicago this year; my placement school for the summer is in the neighborhood I grew up in. Yes, I am making my epic return to Englewood, seven years later. When I graduated from Walter Payton College Prep and left for Oberlin College in the fall of 2007, I vowed that one day I would return to my roots and work to make my community a better place. Atonement comes this summer. Although institute is only five weeks long, the seeds that I will plant can impact a generation of kids and their families.

(Photo credit: docentjoyce)

"If there was a gay dude in here, it’d either be me or him,” my student declared vociferously. I took a deep breath—I had anticipated this. We had just finished our last unit on Death of a Salesman, we were done with the End of Course Exam, and we had about a week and a half left until finals. I’d decided that we would do thematic days until it was time to review, and today was Worldly Wednesday. In small groups, my 11th graders chose whether they would read about Iranians being detained for making a cover of the music video of “Happy,” Chipotle banning guns from their stores after gun rights activists in Texas came into a restaurant with automatic rifles, a stay of execution in Missouri triggered by the botched execution in Oklahoma, or the recent overturning of gay marriage bans in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and my current home of Arkansas.

Teach For America recently introduced a national LGBTQ pilot in several states to empower corps members, regardless of personal identity, to better support their LGBT or questioning students.  In Arkansas, the participants talked about introducing LGBTQ literature to the classroom when anticipated resistance to the reading could be high. We talked about introducing choice—if the students chose to read about the LGBTQ community, then parents can’t really be all that upset at the teachers, right? We talked about using articles instead of books—shorter texts mean less time for opposition to form. We talked about queering the traditional canon of literature—to show that LGBTQ lit isn’t just its own genre and to have an expert backing up the content. And, finally, we talked about bundling the issue into a larger unit on identity and potentially bullying. I’d spent the year talking about Safe Space with my students in a general sense, but I’d just put up a GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) sticker on my door and I was ready to intentionally bring up a conversation about the LGBTQ community in class. Now, here we were, and a student who had only looked at the headline of the article was in full-on opposition mode. I opened my mouth to respond, but another student beat me to it.

Blair Mishleau portrait

(Photo: Flickr)

I’ve always wondered how much I work a week as a teacher. Last week, I sat down with six other teachers (at different schools, different grade levels, etc.) and asked them to track their hours worked.

Two things shocked me.

Alex Fenn, Colorado '12

Alex Fenn's students. (Photo credit: Teach For America)

One of my most vivid memories from elementary school includes visiting the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in first grade. Much of my first-grade experience is a relative blur, but the image of a diplodocus skeleton is one I’ll never forget, as it sparked my lifelong fascination with dinosaurs. 

Experiences like this, ones that will make my students remember my class for years to come, are something that I strive to create in my third-grade classroom at College View Elementary School in Denver. So when I learned that Teach For America-Colorado, Subaru of America, and Leave No Trace, an organization that conducts trainings on outdoor ethics and environmental responsibility, would be partnering to bring a classroom to their Western Regional Offices, I jumped at the opportunity. This year, Subaru donated $10 million to ASPCA, Make-A-Wish, Meals On Wheels Association of America, National Park Foundation, and Teach For America as well as more than 240 local charities across the country. Teach for America regions, spanning 34 states, will receive over $1 million from Subaru. In addition to providing an environmental enrichment opportunity for my students, Teach For America-Colorado received $50,000 to help recruit, train, and provide ongoing support to teachers who commit to teaching in high-need schools and subject areas in Colorado’s public schools.

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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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