In loving memory, my mentor teacher

A common ice-breaker question in the field of education goes something like: “Who was your favorite teacher?” or “Name a teacher that changed your life.” If I’m honest, I struggle with that one. I do believe in the power of amazing teachers to change a life but I have to push myself beyond the bounds of K-12, into my graduate experience to identify the teacher who made the biggest difference to me. Her name is Rachel Moreno. Rachel was, like me, a Latina from the southwest. And she was the embodiment of a great teacher, in part because she was a teacher of teachers.

One day Rachel visited my fourth grade classroom, sat in the back of the room to observe, and then during a break shared what she saw. I distinctly remember one of the points was that some of the students had been off task during my lesson. But she didn’t just tell me what to work on. When my students came back from P.E. that day, Rachel stood in front of the classroom and worked magic on those kids. She used the “teacher look” masterfully, she walked around the room, the way she used her voice … It. Was. Amazing. All of a sudden these students, each and every one of them were perfect. Perfect. She showed me it could be done AND how to do it.

After my first year of teaching, I don’t remember exactly what the issue was, but I was struggling with something. I sought Rachel’s guidance. I remember crying. I remember expecting her to comfort me and tell me exactly what to do. But she didn’t do that. She told me that if it was that bad, I needed to quit. That my students needed more than I was giving them. This wasn’t about me; it was about the students. It was like a slap in the face, but a much needed one. It didn’t matter how tired I was, or how hard it was, or whatever the issue I was having was. What mattered was it was my job to serve those kids.

Rachel taught me how to teach, she taught me how to cope. But by far, the most important thing she did, was help me belong. We shared the same cultural heritage and in a place like South Bend, IN, I needed her to help me belong. I needed her to invite me to her house for an enchilada, bean and rice dinner. I needed her to speak Spanish, sing in Spanish and pray in Spanish. Now that I work full-time in education myself, I know just how strong the research base is that when students who are confident they belong and are valued by their teachers and peers, then they are able to engage more fully in learning. They are able to engage in being. Rachel gave me that feeling and that sense of safety to try hard things, to fail at hard things, and to realize I could do it.

Rachel passed away last night, after a battle with cancer. I hope my work in education does justice to her legacy. May she rest in peace, power, and belonging. Que descanse en paz, maestra mia.

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