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Teacher Spotlight: KIPP Iluminar Academy’s Mercedes Jimenez on preparing her 3rd-graders for college, why Latino parents are sometimes scared to ask questions and the goal charter and district schools share

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | November 13, 2019

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This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Teaching low-income Latino students in East Los Angeles didn’t happen by chance for Mercedes Jimenez, a third-grade teacher at KIPP Iluminar Academy. She grew up in the same neighborhood as her students. She wanted to be that person in the classroom who could “fight for equity,” helping students to be as competitive as possible when they go to college.

Jimenez said she was a straight ‘A’ student because her immigrant mother set on her the idea that in America she “could be whatever she wanted to be.”

“I think her as a Latina mom and getting used to this country, she had this idea of, in America, you could be whatever you want to be. I think she really believed that,” she said. “At the same time, I feel like she didn’t really know what it meant or what I had to do. The resources that I needed, the connections that I needed. It’s a lot more than just the work.”

Jimenez, who graduated from UCLA and obtained her teaching credentials from Loyola Marymount University, believes that representation in the classroom matters and that’s why she thinks her job is to show her students what their future success will require.

“You can be anything you want to be, but I really want to mean it and I want to set them up for that. I don’t want it to just be words. I actually want them to feel prepared,” she said. “When I became a teacher, I just wanted to make sure that when I say that or when people say it to my students, they really have a chance. They’ll go to UCLA and be competitive up there with the rest of the students, not below them.”

LA School Report asked Jimenez about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as her goals for the 2019-20 school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why does representation matter? How does that help students?

To me, representation is big. I think that comes a lot from my own experiences and my own background just being Latina going through life. Whether we accept it or not, there’s going to be discrimination out there. They’re going to have to see certain things at some point.

For me, it’s just important that I make my students culturally aware of that and prepare them for that. Teaching them about different cultures and diversity, so they know that exists also in education. I feel like I grew up in a bubble in a sense where all I knew was my culture and my family. When I went to UCLA, it hit me. I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m different.’ It shocked me that it took me 19 years to realize not everyone’s the same, not everyone’s going to look at me the same. That’s something that’s super important for me and something that I definitely focus on in my classroom to teach, create a community, understanding, and acceptance.

Specifically, how do you talk to your students about these things?

It comes in different ways. For example, when real-life events happen, they see something on the news, the elections, the Trump election. That was a moment where we do a circle. I open it up and we talk about it. They’re only in third grade, but they’re very self-aware. I think a lot of it comes from their household. A lot of students show up upset and they have these ideas about what’s about to happen with our country. I take those as opportunities to create a circle, just open it up, and talk about it. My favorite thing to do is just hear them and listen to what they have to say. Then, them having a discussion and bouncing ideas. Then, me stepping in to clarify things for them. That’s one way. Another way is to read aloud. I feel like choosing the right book that will teach about different cultures is also super important and in opening up discussions. I think the discussion part is the most important.

What kind of social challenges are your students currently facing? 

There’s a variety. I feel like we have a good mixture of different kinds of students. We serve a low-income area. There are some who need a lot more help emotionally than academically. I think our school is really good at prioritizing that. If we see someone who has struggles, someone who has lived through experiences that have really impacted them, we focus on them first as a person before we teach. I think that’s very important. I’ve had a mixture of students throughout the years. I’ve had some, who I know their families work and they struggle to keep up with their children. What I mean by that is, I can just tell they don’t really do their homework at home or they’re struggling to do their homework at home. (They need to) get that extra help.

How do you think teachers can bring more innovation to the classroom?

Honestly, you have to be open to new ideas. I think that’s the most important. For me, I always make my decisions based on what my students need. Every year, you’re going to get a different cohort of students. They’re not all going to be the same, so you’re going to have to try different things. What might have worked for me one year is not going to work again for the next group of students. The most important part — and what teachers need to look at first — is that. Get to know your students, build relationships with them. Create a sense of community because if you don’t have that, it’s going to be very difficult to teach. That’s something that I definitely do in my classroom.

As every year goes by, I’m going into my fifth year of teaching, I think that’s something that’s at the heart of my teaching. If my students are not happy, if they’re not making connections, if they don’t have relationships, especially with me, the rest of the school year is going to be really difficult. I do think it starts there and just being open to trying new things. Especially when you work in the public school system, they tell you to do it one way. Just being open to … trying it in different ways that the students will get it.

Can you give me an example of something innovative that you have tried recently in the classroom?

Let me say this as an example. With math, last year, I had a cohort of students who could just visualize everything really easily in their minds. I could just teach. I could teach the concepts, I could have conversations. We could have discussions. This year, my cohort changed a little bit. I could tell they weren’t really good at creating pictures in their mind. I have to create visuals for them. I think one of the things that I used this year that I didn’t use the year before was the use of manipulatives. Those are different objects that they can use. Little blocks, sticks, or anything they can use to actually create the problems on the floor or at their desk. That would be an example.

What do you think, either your school, the school district, or even the state could do differently to better support teachers?

Just in general, I would say giving teachers more support. I can only speak for my school. I know in my school, they prioritize the teachers. If they need materials, whatever they need for the classroom before the school year starts, they make sure that we have everything we need to teach. If we don’t have those tools, it’s really difficult throughout the year. That’s, in my opinion, one of the first things that schools can do, just making sure that they support the teachers in anything that they need.

What could parents do better to support you in your job?

We always say we love parent support. Honestly, we have an open-door policy. We welcome parents to come into our school, come into our classrooms. Parents being involved asking questions. Even if they don’t understand something, coming into our school or reaching out to teachers. That communication is key. I know some parents are scared sometimes to talk to their teachers or they don’t want to approach them because they’re too nervous. I think parents just have to be more proactive in reaching out to their teachers. If there’s something they don’t understand, something comes up, something’s going on with their child, just reaching out and talking to them about it.

Do you think parents can do better in preparing their children for the different challenges they may have to face in the education system, particularly for Latino students or other students of color? 

I think about myself as a mom eventually at some point and being a Latina. I know I’m different than my parents because I’ve got an education. I look back to it, and it’s true. I do think about what my parents could have done differently. I think for them, it’s more just being able to ask questions. I think it’s important or to do research because, yes, my school was good, at the same time, I know my parents just put me there because that’s where I belonged. That’s the neighborhood area. I think parents just not being so scared to look for resources, to do some research, to talk to their children about the things that they’re going to see. Being able to open up to them and talking about the issues that are going on around us. Most importantly, I think Latinos, in general, have this. I don’t know if we’re just scared of the world or scared of asking questions and getting shut down. I think we’ve just got to be more secure in ourselves. We have rights. I’m thinking of it in terms of schools. There are many school options out there. If you do the research and you figure out which is the best one, it could give you a better chance academically for your child.

What do you think is most misunderstood about your job as a teacher?

I hear the same thing over and over, especially when I tell people I’m a teacher. They think, ‘Your job is easy. All you have to do is sit in the classroom and babysit for six, seven hours.’ I think that’s the most common thing that I get. As well as, ‘You’re lucky. You get two months off in the middle of the school year. You don’t have to work for two months.’ I think that’s a big misunderstanding because those two months are hard-earned. You’re in the classroom for a whole year with little kids. They’re little. It takes a lot. A lot of management, a lot of energy. By the time that the school year ends, it’s a well-deserved break. When it goes to the babysitting part, I think a lot of people have this misunderstanding of what teachers do and what they teach, especially at the lower level. They don’t understand that we’re teaching reading, we’re teaching math, grammar. It’s all these foundations that students need in order to go on and be successful in high school. It’s not just high school where the real teaching is happening. It starts at a very early age.

What has been one of your best moments of teaching? What has been one of your proudest accomplishments?

I would definitely say the most rewarding is just the bond that I create with my students. … I had a hard student. That’s what I like to call him. He needed extra attention. He was having a rough time. Just being able to impact someone like that, create a relationship with them, and for a whole entire year, work on their emotions and help them grow. At the end of the year, just seeing that change. I think with that student, that’s a memory that I have. Just seeing someone come in struggling so much and at the end of the year, having a smile on your face, having a different outlook on life, and just giving things a chance, it’s very rewarding. I think those are the memories that I live for.

Is there something that you would like the public to know about charters, or just in particular about your school?

The way I would respond to that, at the end of the day, I think we’re all fighting for the same thing. I think that’s our kids’ education. Whether it’s charter or traditional, I feel like it shouldn’t be a fight against both, or which one’s better, because we’re all on the same mission. We all want the same thing and that’s for a better education for our kids.

What’s your main goal or one of your goals for the new school year?

It’s an interesting question because I’m actually looping with my kids, which means that I’m going to get to keep them (for two consecutive school years). I think my biggest goal is that I’m going to focus more on my non-readers, my students who are struggling to read. For me, I think my goal is to get all of my students to become readers. I do think reading is very important. That’s a life skill that they need. I think that’s my goal. That’s one bigger goal.

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