Giving My Students the Academic Experience That I Never Had
SCHOOLS | March 23, 2021
Giving My Students the Academic Experience That I Never Had

By Cynthia Juarez, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Sor Juana Elementary School and a Golden Apple finalist 

My 15 years as a teacher on the Southwest Side of Chicago can be summed up by a single hug. 

I have always believed in the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) in my classroom. One year, I had a particularly challenging student who ran around the room and threw chairs during class. I remember feeling like I didn’t know what to do. 

But I stayed patient with that student. Despite the anger he exuded, I told him that I cared about him and had a feeling that we were going to get along great. And, at first, he said: “I don’t think so.” 

Then, one day, he was having a hard time, so he went to the “Calm Corner,” which has been a key part of my SEL-centered classroom for years. Afterward, he came up to me, and I initially put my guard up because I wasn’t sure what he was going to do or say. 

He asked for a hug. I have never been hugged like that before or since then; the whole room felt that hug. I knew this student did not have an easy home life, so I told him: “This is your family, and whenever you need a hug, I am here.” 

When I reflect on this memory, I think of another student: me. I grew up in an all-white suburb with parents who valued education but didn’t have the opportunity of a traditional education themselves. 

As one of the only Spanish speakers in my school, my instruction often consisted of a pair of headphones and a set of flashcards that were meant to teach me common English words. I didn’t start reading until I was in the fifth grade. It was my fifth-grade teacher who made me believe I could do school.

Beyond the academic limitations I faced, the worst part about school was the social side of it. I looked different. I had an accent. I ate different food. No one wanted to be friends with me. And when my mother and I asked for help from the school administration, their response was that “kids will be kids.” 

It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a principal because I knew I could do a better job supporting students than that. But, of course, before becoming a principal, you need to teach. 

So, I said I would teach for a few years. Then a few more. Now, it’s been 15 years. 2020 felt like the right time to finally take the leap and become an assistant principal. But then the pandemic hit, and I saw teaching through it as an opportunity to build a new set of strategies that would help me as a future leader. 

Throughout online learning, the word I fixated on was grace. I asked my students and their parents for grace, and I told them I would give them grace in return. I gave my son, who is the same age as many of my students, a lot of grace. I gave out the grace that I wish I would have received when I was a young student. 

Now that my classroom has students again, that grace has turned into joy. Something that defines my teaching style is that I have a song for everything, and it has been extremely rewarding to see that extra sparkle in my students’ eyes as we sing about reading and writing.

I am very grateful and humbled to be named a Golden Apple finalist. I heard from many colleagues and friends about how I have impacted them and their practice. One former teaching assistant shared that she didn’t appreciate my enthusiastic songs when she worked with me. Now, as a resident teacher, she sings my songs to her students. 

I think my teaching style rubs off on others because I teach from the heart. I teach the way I want my son to be taught. I teach the way I would have loved to have been taught. 

And while I can’t hug my students just yet, I will be waiting with open arms when it is safe to do so to remind them of the love they’ll always find in my classroom.