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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Coming Home: A Young Teacher Strives to Help Students Succeed

Nidya Baez talks about the importance of connecting with students and why she wants to teach in her own community.
By Amy Erin Borovoy
Credit: Nidya Baez

After graduating from college, Nidya Baez, one of our Daring Dozen 2008 honorees, returned to work at the high school in Oakland, California, she attended, and when she earns her teaching credential, she hopes to join the faculty of a small school she helped found as a teenager: the Youth Empowerment School. In this interview, she talks about her past, present, and future.

How did your involvement with designing the Youth Empowerment School, in Oakland, California, as a high school student inform your decision to become a teacher?

I always kind of knew I wanted to be a teacher, and since I was a child, I always liked to help other people. Generally, if I know something, I want to share it with others, especially if I see them struggling in that area. But I don't just want to tell them the answer; I want to get them to the point where they realize the answer on their own so that they learn.

I think that building a school was very inspirational to me and helped me see a certain side of teaching. We had very high expectations of our teachers, and I think now I feel pressured -- in a good way -- to live up to those expectations. I know it's not going to happen my first year, because the truth is that it's going to take time to develop those great teaching habits I saw in my teachers. But I know I'm willing to take that risk and to take that challenge. I believe that if I'm teaching people who feel they can connect with me, then I'm doing something good. If I see my students succeed, then I feel like I'm succeeding.

How does the vision of the Youth Empowerment School match up with your personal vision for teaching and learning?

Teachers can do so much, but the students account for the other 50 percent. So, when teaching gets difficult -- and it's difficult now as I coach students who are second-language learners or as I tutor kids who are struggling with a subject -- it's hard for me to not just give them the answer. But then I remember that the empowerment part of it comes in only when I help them get there by themselves, even if it's going to take me ten more minutes to explain what a fraction is, or how to say a word versus how to write it.

I always remember that it's about the empowerment. I remember that it's going to take a while. My teachers were patient with me, and they had high expectations. I'm going to continue that when I become a full-time teacher. I'm going to help the students get there by themselves. I'm going to take a little bit longer, or present what I'm teaching in a different way if the first one doesn't work.

That's part of the empowerment, that's how the students will take on learning, and that's how I will begin to trust the students with their learning. If I don't trust them, if I don't believe in them, then why am I there? I have to learn how to trust them. That's a skill that I'm still learning as I transition from being a student to a teacher.

Tell me about your commitment to working in the community where you grew up.

I feel very attached to my community in a good way. I feel that because I went through struggles, because I went to those poorer schools, I can offer a perspective different from a teacher who went to really good schools all the time, had parents who were professionals, and then came to this neighborhood only to feel as if she is giving up something by teaching in the ghetto. I want to change that. We need more people who look like our students to be teaching them.

I want to come back because it's where I came from, but there's a bigger issue: It's not just about me feeling connected to the community. It's also because we need to start a movement to create more teachers from this community who will inspire the kids to keep growing in positive ways. I don't think I've seen enough teachers of color in classrooms. I want to be part of that movement of creating homegrown teachers. But that's not happening right now. It is starting to, but I don't think it's been the focus over the past two decades -- especially in a community such as Oakland, which has shifted from being predominantly white to being largely a population of immigrants and African Americans.

With all the challenges that face new teachers in this educational system, why did you choose to teach?

The students are fighting a war against stereotypes, against test scores, against anything that's in their way. I think that if people don't actually come down to the front lines and fight along with them, they're never going to win it by themselves. I know that I had teachers who inspired me to become a teacher, and I also see a lot of teachers who don't get any recognition for their work. They do so much for their students: They call home. They come up with innovative lesson plans. They do everything, but they don't get any credit.

I didn't go to college to become someone who makes a lot of money. I think that my concern was more about how I can help others have the good things in life. I asked, "How can I help them do better than I did?" I think about where I would be if I had had all the resources I needed since day one in kindergarten. That's not to say I'm unhappy with where I am, because given my circumstances, I'm in a good place. I'm alive and I'm happy, and I wasn't involved in anything that damaged my future.

I like helping others, and the best way for me to do it is by teaching. We need more teachers, and we definitely need more teachers of color. We need more teachers who speak the language of their students, and I don't just mean English or Spanish or the language of the street. I mean someone who really understands where they come from. I think that having that knowledge can help me help them succeed in their education -- and connect.

I've connected my survival to everything I've ever done with my education, and my education is directly connected to my survival. For me, teaching is helping the students get through, survive, and do something positive with their lives. I hold that knowledge, but I can't just keep it to myself. I need to help the students realize that they're not just working to succeed for themselves. They're also doing it for everyone else in the community. Their success represents the community's success. They, too, can give back and keep a chain of success going within their own community.

That's especially important in places such as Oakland, where we don't give kids any real options for success. I want to be there with them, to help them. I want to support them so they can see what their other options are. I want them to see how they can succeed in whatever lesson we're doing that day. And I think what motivates me to keep going is that they're there, and they're worth the struggle.

What do you think is they key to improving our schools and our communities?

I think that for us to improve as a community, for us to really unite, we need to realize what kind of system we live in and that we can't only be against these people. If we are fighting this war, how do we fight it peacefully, and how do we dialogue so we can come up with solutions or more questions? I don't know -- it goes in many ways, because there's not only one answer.

But I do think once students become more aware of their circumstances, then they can take matters into their own hands -- just like we did at the Youth Empowerment School. The teachers showed us the statistics, and they asked us, "What are you going to do about it?" Asking us that probing question made us think outside the box, rather than simply believe that the system was against us. We knew we could change. So I think once we have students who realize why the system is the way it is, or why we live like this, or why we don't have certain things, we can begin to educate them and transform our schools.

Amy Erin Borovoy is a coordinating video producer for Edutopia.

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