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Finding Home in the Classroom

What's it like to have your first teaching experience in a neighborhood you visited often as a child? Cristina Nunez-Ballesteros shares how she's finding her way as an educator in Chicago. 

Male student stands in front of a flip chart.

July 15, 2019

Every summer, Teach For America welcomes our new corps members to Chicago Summer Training: a rigorous, hands-on experience that combines intensive training with immersive teaching practice and coaching. This year, a staff member and a 2019 corps member will be blogging about their on-the-ground experiences! This post comes from Cristina Nunez-Ballesteros, a 2019 corps member and Illinois native who will be teaching early childhood education. (Catch up on Cristina's first post, where she shares why she joined Teach For America.


Growing up, Pilsen and Back of the Yards were my Chicago. Once a month, my family would make the hour drive to buy our groceries at El Güero on 47th, pick up pan dulce less than a block down, and keep walking to El Atotonilco for tacos and milkshakes. If we were lucky, my parents would buy us Oaxacan tamales and atole from all the street vendors we could find.

Other than to make anyone hungry or jealous, I share these memories because these neighborhoods are where we are doing Teach For America's summer training this year. Halfway through this experience, I feel a need to express how much of a privilege this is for myself and my fellow corps members. The area, like so many other neighborhoods in the city, is a beacon of the future because it has such a rich past.

“My students remind me that Chicago is only as strong and revolutionary as its youth.”

Cristina Nunez-Ballesteros

The truth is, teaching is incredibly challenging. I can’t describe the responsibility I feel knowing that parents trust my cohort and myself with their children. Especially with pre-K, it’s possible we are our students’ first interaction with school. Sometimes I feel like a failure, and worry I’m not enough for our students’ needs. Every morning, I take the Red Line from Loyola to 47th and think about every little thing I could and should have done better the day before.

Then I arrive at school, and our students come into the classroom and give each other hugs so tight we have to make sure they’re all breathing. They re-teach each other the lessons we learned yesterday. They share toys and laugh together over the activities we do. They remember how to say an animal in English and an entire phrase in Spanish. During every single one of those moments I’m incredibly humbled. My students remind me that Chicago is only as strong and revolutionary as its youth.

Though I still feel like a visitor in these neighborhoods, there are moments in the classroom where I feel at home, because this community has welcomed us (and trusted us) to learn alongside our students. Chicago and summer training continue to remind me that I am here to serve these children. We are here to ensure they have a bright future, but truly our students are the ones leading the way.