This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ZO: When did you know you wanted to go into teaching?
SID: In undergrad, I actually studied psychology. I thought that my way to help would be through mental health. I am very grateful for my background in psychology and I think it’s very pertinent for education.
I studied abroad my senior year of college, in Argentina, and they actually do free college for everybody. That really just got me thinking, here we are in the U.S., where our education system has so many challenges. What impact can I have on our educational system? I came back and I was able to see what I could do. I got my master’s in bilingual education and that’s when I started teaching.
ZO: I wanted to talk to you because you are a first-generation graduate who went back into the classroom. What was it like to re-enter that space after having gone through the full experience of being first-gen?
SID: I do think being first-gen and being a native Spanish speaker has helped me build relationships with my students. Time and time again, teachers will tell you your leverage point with children is building relationships. They have to be able to trust you, they have to be able to feel safe in your classroom, and then we can start talking about academics.
Something that comes to mind too is an out-of-the-classroom, life example. If I need advice on creating a retirement plan, I have to seek out an expert. It’s not a conversation that I can have with my parents. And it’s just because they don’t know. You can apply that situation to so many other life examples even when you’re done with school.
This happens a lot with first-generation students where there are certain conversations that I also don’t want to bring to them. I don’t want my parents to feel incompetent because I can’t come to them for certain things. I don’t think that other people necessarily have that experience. You struggle but you just don’t know that you’re not supposed to struggle.
ZO: In the years that you were in the classroom as a teacher, do you feel like being first-gen affected the way you approached your students?
SID: I had my own experience learning English and [having] a family who didn’t necessarily challenge the authority of teachers. I reflect back now on certain conversations, like if my mom would have simply asked a teacher for reasoning as to why they couldn’t enroll me in the honors program. She just didn’t know any better. It’s not her fault and I absolutely do not hold that against her, but as I serve students, as I serve families, I have that in the back of my head. What opportunities am I creating for the child and what barriers are there that they may not even know about?
That was our situation where we didn’t know that we could challenge. We didn’t know that we could ask follow-up questions. It was just, this is a person of authority we accept it and we move on.
My hope and my push is to create and to open more doors for others. Obviously, I want college to be an option for all our students, but if financially or for whatever reason, that may not be an option then ensuring that when they graduate high school, they can still have a plan that develops a career for them.
ZO: Why is important for students to have teachers who have the background of being first-gen, whether they’re going to be a first-generation college student themselves or not?
SID: It’s happened where a family will call and say [a student] is not doing their homework, they’re not listening to me. You can sit down with them and have a one-on-one conversation. Oftentimes, I will say I’m sure your parents have told you this and because I’ve had that shared experience with them, it resonates with them. They give me a look of like, “how did you know?” I can understand what their lived experience is. It’s your middle school years where you think the world’ is out to get you and having parents who don’t necessarily know how to navigate makes it harder.
Understanding what the child is going through, while also being able to support the family so that they don’t feel like they have to complete a high school application by themselves or sign off on something that they may not necessarily understand can have a huge impact.
ZO: Obviously, in the last year and a half schools have been so impacted by the pandemic. How have you seen COVID affect your first-gen and bilingual students?
SID: In this year and a half, families have seen anything and everything. So many people have experienced COVID and its side effects. I think this year and a half has changed for the positive families’ mindsets about counseling, but unfortunately, it’s been [because] they’ve seen their child go through depressive episodes.
If we go back, February 2020, I would’ve referred students for counseling. These are first-gen students, these are families who in their native countries, counseling and therapy have a stigma. It still has a stigma in the U.S. So I think probably in 2020 I would have to frame it very intentionally because a lot of families were hesitant to seek out those services.