Encouraging the Future
SCHOOLS | June 30, 2020
Encouraging the Future

One Teacher’s Impact on Multiple Generations of Women Leaders

The photos for this story were taken on February 21, 2020.

Alicia Ortiz says that she was always a shy and quiet student, which is why she’ll never forget how Rosa Alvarez, her third-grade teacher, made her feel confident enough to ask questions and participate in class. Now, many years later, she is Ms. Alvarez’s colleague at Nathanael Greene Elementary School in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood. 

“When I was in Ms. Alvarez’s class, I always felt comfortable and like I could speak up if I wanted to. I remember that I thought she was so smart because she always took the time to answer everyone’s questions,” said Ms. Ortiz. “Now that she’s my colleague, she’s taught me how to be calm, caring, patient, and understanding with my students.” 

Ms. Alvarez’s family emigrated from Mexico to Chicago when she was six years old. A proud graduate of Bowen High School, she credits her mom for making education a top priority in her family and instilling a strong work ethic in her. After earning her degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a stint working with CPS students and families at a non-profit, she has committed her life to teaching for the past 25 years, including nearly a decade at Greene.

“Being a CPS student turned CPS educator, my time with the district has been very rewarding,” said Ms. Alvarez. “I feel like I wake up every day and I love coming to work. My hope is that I have positively impacted the hundreds of students who I have taught over my career.” 

Near the beginning of her career, Ms. Alvarez worked with Shelley Lugo-Cordova—the current principal of Greene—at Carson Elementary. Since joining the Greene family several years ago, Principal Cordova says she has relied on Ms. Alvarez to take on a wide range of responsibilities at the school because she is an effective leader and positive example for other teachers and students. 

“When I started as principal, I asked my teachers who they wanted to work with, and almost every teacher said they wanted to work with Rosa,” said Principal Cordova. “She touches everyone with such a positive light, and the students just love her.” 

Though she started at Greene as a fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Alvarez’s role has shifted and she now works with students across all grade levels as the English language program teacher (ELPT) and multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) coordinator. She focuses on ensuring that bilingual students are meeting academic expectations and that all students are taking advantage of the resources available to them. 

“Balancing everything is challenging, but I always try to put forth my best effort in everything that I do,” said Ms. Alvarez. “Meeting my students’ needs through small group instruction is especially gratifying because I get to push them forward while also getting to know them personally.” 

The personal connections that Ms. Alvarez forms with her students help her engage them academically. To assist students in her MTSS reading groups, she frequently connects their interests to the vocabulary they are learning so the new words are less daunting. Abigail C., a fifth-grade student who is receiving specialized math support from Ms. Alvarez, says that having a mentor as approachable and kind-hearted as Ms. Alvarez has gone a long way in helping her improve in the classroom. 

“I will never forget the day Ms. Alvarez and I first met because we had a special connection,” said Abigail. “She’s a very sweet teacher and I have been improving with math because she has really helped me out.” 

From teaching Ms. Ortiz many years ago to teaching Abigail this year, Ms. Alvarez has never wavered in her belief that helping female students discover their passion starts with building up their self-esteem. In her opinion, once female students know that they are capable of reaching any goal that they set for themselves, they will have the perseverance to see those goals through. 

“I hope that the future is bright for my girls and that they continue to persevere, work hard, take advantage of the opportunities available, and do the best they can in life,” said Ms. Alvarez. “With the opportunities we have here at Greene, I believe they can become anything they want. I always tell them that I can’t wait for them to come back and tell me all that they’ve accomplished.” 

While CPS is one of the largest school districts in the country, it feels small at Greene Elementary because of the personal connections teachers and students are making every single day—just like the bonds between Ms. Alvarez, Ms. Ortiz, and Abigail. 

From Left to Right: Greene Elementary Teacher Alicia Ortiz, Student Abigail C., and Teacher Rosa Alvarez