Nidya Baez: Community Connection
Credit: Peter Hoey
"We need more teachers who care -- teachers of color in particular -- and teachers from the community who know what students go through every day," says Nidya Baez as she talks about what inspired her to become a teacher. "I'm not saying that teachers don't care about their students," she adds, but the connection between the two is much stronger, she believes, when teacher and student are from the same community.
Acting on her own convictions, Baez, a 2007 University of California at Berkeley graduate, is an English-language coach and substitute teacher at the school she attended, Fremont High School, in Oakland, California. (See "Many Models of Empowerment: Students Make a Business of Learning," and read this interview with Baez.)
Baez's story is unusual in the context of this year's Daring Dozen. Though she is at the threshold of her teaching career, she has already distinguished herself in education by participating in the development of a new public school. In operation since 2003, it's called YES -- Oakland's Youth Empowerment School. Once she gets her credential, Baez plans to teach Spanish at YES, and she's already thinking about her instructional approach: "I want to be able to communicate with images, music, and perhaps films. I'll probably be teaching students who are not native speakers, so it will be critical for me to use technology in the classroom."
YES got its start in 2002 when Baez and some of her fellow high school students were asked to help in the school's planning and design. "Our school was being broken up into what were called small autonomous interconnected schools," Baez explains. "Fremont High was chosen to begin this model for the rest of the district." The smaller school, she says, benefits "teachers who work better in a small-staff setting as well as a small-school setting."
Baez and her fellow students were part of Fremont's Business Academy, where project learning was applied to projects ranging from an on-campus sandwich cart to tax-preparation services. "We were inspired by our business projects to form our own school, not so much to make money, but to help the school through our entrepreneurship."
"We'd come together for weekly or biweekly meetings," Baez recalls. "We had a couple of retreats, and the adults helped us put our ideas into the education language that we didn't have. That's how YES came to be."
Little did Baez know at the time that she was helping create the school where she'd likely start her career. And now that she's almost there, what is it she thinks that students look for in a teacher?
"I think they look for someone who believes in them," she says. "Whether it's believing that they can turn in their homework or believing --" Baez thinks for a moment. "I just think that they want someone to trust them." When there's a community connection between students and teachers, she says, "it helps the school dynamic, and the classroom dynamic, and it helps the students do well."
How do you use the Web or other technology in your work?
We have access to videos and PowerPoint presentations and images. It's such a great tool to have in a classroom. You can plug in the LCD projector and pop up your lecture or your pictures. I'm probably going to be teaching students who are not native speakers, so it will be even more critical to be using technology in the classroom.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
My teachers have inspired me to give back -- also, my family. A lot of resources have helped: meeting professors, seeing their passion for their work. I really like Paulo Freire's book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Who are some of your role models?
My mom has been always very supportive of doing things for the community, to affect others in a positive way. And other teachers and the principals sticking to their goal of helping is really inspirational.
What advice would you give to those who consider you a role model?
It's hard for me to see myself as a role model. When I see my teachers -- they have all this experience -- I see them as my role models. I never thought I'd get to the point where I'm someone else’s role model. But something that has been passed on to me is something I would pass on to other people, to my younger family and the kids I work with: Follow a passion, and as long as it's good for the community, it doesn't matter whether you're getting paid millions or not -- follow that passion. Without the love of what you're doing, you're not going to be happy.
What fundamental beliefs guide your work?
Spiritually, doing things without my own interests in mind is a big belief I carry. Also, in order to make any change in the setting we're in, we need to know and recognize why we're in the situation, so, be educated within your own context. Be educated and aware of why other people are reacting the way they are. In the end, you can be the better person.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
We judge ourselves very harshly, and sometimes we hold very high expectations. I'm very hard on myself, and I must remind myself that I have power over the present moment. I have to keep on going. As a woman of color, I'm not only representing myself, I'm representing my family, I'm representing women, I'm representing my ethnic group, I'm representing where I work, the profession that I'm choosing to go into, and I am representing the City of Oakland in many ways. I always remind myself that I need to keep pushing, and not only for myself -- I have to keep on pushing for everyone else.
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