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The “Teacher Of The Year” Who Almost Didn’t Teach

A math major reflects on overcoming his fears and becoming a role model


By The TFA Editorial Team

August 16, 2016

Kevin Pelaez (San Diego ’14) grew up in San Diego, was a stellar student and graduated from a top California university -- with a degree other than education. With many lucrative options ahead of him, Kevin decided to make a difference in his hometown as a teacher.

By the end of his two-year TFA-San Diego commitment, Kevin was voted Teacher of the Year at King Chavez Community High School. Kevin returned to his placement school this fall to teach math and AVID. 

Q: First, what brought you to TFA? Weren’t you considering going corporate?

Kevin: Teaching was never something I considered, especially being a math major. The first thing they tell you right away is that as a math major, being a teacher is the lowest pay you are ever going to get. But I joined some multi-cultural organizations, and discovered a lot of my older friends were joining Teach For America, and thought maybe I would try it too. Senior year came around, I applied, and I got it, and now I’m here. If it wasn’t for Teach For America, I wouldn’t be here.

“I wanted to be a role model. So I went into teaching.”

Kevin Pelaez

Q: What do you remember about your first day of teaching?

Kevin: I was scared. I didn’t even know what the bell schedule was like. I didn’t know my students. And my students clearly knew it was my first day.

Q: How did you find your way out of that confusion?

Kevin: I started asking my students, “Hey what time will the bell ring?” Then one of the teachers who I got really close to later in the year explained our bell schedule was a bit different on the first day and guided me through.

Q: That’s interesting that you first asked your students for help, because one of the reasons you were recognized as Teacher of the Year was based on your ability to build relationships with your kids. Can you explain what your secret is to those connections?

Kevin: This is a hard question. I think it’s not being afraid to be yourself in front of them. It’s really hard to find the balance between being a strict teacher and someone students can turn to as a friend, finding the balance between being someone they can trust and someone they respect and look up to. It’s really hard, and I had to think about it a lot. I had to sit in front of the class and think, “This is a moment where I am going to be someone who demands control,” and, “This is a moment when I am going to try to get to know these kids.”

“I look out into my classrooms every day and see myself in the faces looking back at me.”

Kevin Pelaez

Q: When you look back at last year, was there a particular teaching moment you were proud of? Or maybe one where you felt like, I know made a difference today?

Kevin: Yes, in my sophomore AVID class, which is a college prep class. Toward the end of the year, I made a little chart for the class to show its growth, just based on GPA. When we started the year, out of 58 kids, only 4 had a 4.0 or above. By the end of the year more than half of the class had a 4.0 or above. It was all them -- but it was also the mandatory grade checks I would do, and little annoying things I would be on them about, like making sure they stayed after school for tutoring, that their teachers signed their proof-of-tutoring slips, and that their parents knew they were supposed to be staying after school. That work counted toward their grades, and it paid off. Now they are talking about what colleges they want to go to. They have UCSD stickers on their binders. That’s a huge step for them.

Q: With new corps members or people thinking about joining the corps, what advice do you have to share?

Kevin: Don’t be afraid to reach out to the teachers already at your school. They were my greatest resource in my first year. Everything from learning how to make a test, to learning what discipline works with what students. Everything I learned at university was awesome, but everything I learned from a teacher who already had my students, who already knew my students – it worked even better.