WSD teacher R. Juarez uses experience to build futures
Reprinted from The ECHO
The past year provided tremendous life challenges on a global scale: the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricane-induced evacuations and the rapid rise of distance learning. Fortunately for students in R. Juarez's CHANGES 3 class at the Sanchez State Jail, their teacher is not one to back down from a challenge. Instead, Juarez embraces a good challenge.
That's one of many reasons Juarez was chosen as one of the Windham School District's (WSD) 2020 Lane Murray Excellence in Teaching (LMET) honorees for her work in teaching life skills. The LMET initiative acknowledges teachers' contributions to both the success of their students and the success of the instructional program itself.
Before coming to Windham, Juarez taught junior high science in El Paso in a large public school system. The challenges involved in teaching in public schools versus corrections education are vastly different, yet also similar. In public schools, Juarez previously taught science mainly to teenagers, while in WSD she teaches adult life skills to a wide range of ages. However, she says the objective is the same.
"In public school, your job is to build students up for their future," she said, "and in the correctional system, you have to help students rebuild their future after release. The content [curriculum] is different, though. In the public school I taught science; now I teach the life skills they will need upon their release."
A challenge common to every educator is how to generate interest in subject matter for students.
Juarez overcomes that challenge by thinking outside the box and using her creativity. When discussing behavioral issues, she said she makes up the most "unexpected, far-fetched scenarios" she can think of, often placing herself in the situation, and then asking students to identify the thinking errors she is making.
Then, after they show they have a grasp of the material, she turns it back on them and asks them to consider an episode in their past where they made a poor decision — and determine what thinking errors contributed to that bad decision. More importantly, she asks how they could have handled the situation in a more positive manner with the information they have learned.
Another example of Juarez's creativity was the time she used "someone near and dear" to her students to teach the importance of managing personal finance: their mothers. She created a Mother's Day project where each student had a certain amount of money he could spend for Mother's Day, but he also had to be able to pay his bills. Using printed store circulars, she allowed her classes to practice comparison shopping for the imaginary gift for their mothers. She said that exercise showed her students how the things they were learning in the class could be applied to their lives when they return to society.
The recent acceleration of distance learning due to the effects of the coronavirus was another challenge for schools worldwide. Juarez met that challenge in her Windham classroom with her usual can-do attitude, going above and beyond what is required to succeed.
In the assignment packages she sent to her students who could not attend class together, she included quotes from famous people and handwritten notes of encouragement to her students to stay positive and safe — and to also understand this was a trying time for everyone. She said that when in-person classes resumed, her students inundated her with messages of gratitude for the notes and quotes.
One challenge Juarez faces, however, is the misperception many students form when they see a petite, 5-foot, 1-inch teacher behind the desk the first time they walk into the classroom. It happens so often that Juarez says she can recognize it in her students' eyes.
Juarez says students assume that because she has a college education, she cannot possibly understand the circumstances that led these students to incarceration. That's when she tells them a story where she describes a person coming from a background that most of them recognize as being similar to their own.
The person she describes grew up in an impoverished neighborhood where drug use and alcoholism was rampant, bringing social, economic and personal hardships. Finally, once she has set the scene and hooked them with the story, she reveals that she is actually the person she is describing.
Juarez said this is when her students learn their first lesson in her class, that she is not simply telling them what she learned from reading books or inside a classroom; she is sharing lessons she learned while living her life. Negative experiences in her life, such as being a run- away and teenage mother, have turned into positives. She gets to help others who may have experienced the same things that she did.
"I am a living example that there is hope," Juarez says.
Juarez said she stays and faces the daily challenges because she loves what she does. She loves trying to make a difference in the lives of her students.
"For me, I feel it is more rewarding here than teaching in public schools," she said. "I tell people on the outside: one day that student will one day be your neighbor, that student will be someone you meet at your church, that student will be an employee — and we want them to be successful. I get to reach that unreachable student. … I get to show him there is grace for him if he puts in the work."