Spotlight: Lacy Rivera (NM '19)February 7, 2020
Professional learning coach Lacy Rivera (NM ’19) started teaching as a stepping stone to working on educational policy. She never expected to fall in love with the classroom: “Educators can be agents of change that multiplies across communities and grows over the years.” Lacy won New Mexico’s 2019-20 Milken Educator Award at Los Lunas High School (LLHS) on October 22, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: What do you like about high school students?
Lacy Rivera (NM ’19): High school students are the best! Each student brings with them their own unique perspective, personality, and sense of humor and inquiry. These young adults come into their own over the course of high school. Some may look back on high school and think, “No way would I want to go through that again,” but I think about it differently. During these formative years, life is full of struggle and joy. The learning is in the struggle! What a joy to be part of all that growth!
MFF: You recently made the transition from the classroom to coaching teachers. What do you like about your new role? What do you miss about your previous one?
Lacy: I am so grateful to be a professional learning coach. This role allows me to address school change, school improvement, leadership, professional learning and student learning. I am able to influence change at multiple levels: at the district level in collaboration with other coaches; at the school level as we examine policies, practices, and procedures; at the team level, as we engage in collaborative teaching-assessing-learning cycles; and at the classroom level, where I get to partner with individual teachers to improve student learning and engagement through instructional design and best practices. In this way, being a coach is incredibly fulfilling and challenging. Even in these first two years, we have begun to create systemic improvement that ultimately benefits kids.
Of course, I miss teaching every single day. Being in the classroom allows a teacher to develop lasting, caring and authentic relationships with students. In a classroom, we often experience immediate feedback. With formative assessments and classroom discussion, we can quickly ascertain what is working and what is not, and we can make adjustments on the fly. And for me, the high school English Language Arts classroom provides a space of possibility where students can engage in critical, informed and challenging conversations about real-world issues. I miss the depth and rigor of those discussions!
At the same time, I look forward to my own learning as I continue to grow as a coach and leader. Ultimately, as we develop new skillsets and mindsets, we bring them back to the students and the communities we serve.
MFF: Your district is working toward becoming a Professional Learning Community (PLC). How will this change the way LLHS teachers work? How will it benefit students?
Lacy: There are three important mind shifts schools must make as they become a PLC.
First, all students can learn at high levels.
Second, no one person can ensure that every single kid on campus learns at high levels, so we must work together, leverage the expertise that is in our school, engage in shared learning, and develop a committed, collective responsibility for our common goal of high levels of learning for all.
And finally, becoming a PLC means we have chosen to commit to an ongoing cycle of continuous improvement, where we will perpetually learn from our actions and their results.
These three big mind shifts have already changed the way our teachers work, as we move from isolation to collaboration. As students reflect on their learning, they are beginning to recognize that their effort is not just about a grade, but instead is about learning deeply and with clarity.
We have already built systems so that we are responding to student needs proactively rather than reactively, and in this way, we will benefit every student, from the most struggling learner to the most reluctant student to the students who are already excelling and need an extra challenge. The goal here is to make high levels of learning for all an expectation rather than an invitation. And as we do the work collaboratively, the change is becoming far more meaningful and sustainable.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Lacy: I have always wanted to make a difference in society. I started teaching as a stepping stone into educational law and policy. I knew that great change could happen on a large scale with the right laws, policies and practices, and I also knew that in order to advocate for change, I needed to have the experience of teaching.
Little did I know that I would fall in love with the classroom. I have learned as much from my students as they have from me, and I have grown as a school leader over the years. In fact, I view critically conscious and caring classrooms as the most powerful spaces for change. Educators can be agents of change that multiplies across communities and grows over the years.
MFF: Tell us about your first year.
Lacy: On my first day of teaching, I was 21 years old and living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi one year after Hurricane Katrina. I lived with six other young teachers and taught five different subjects. What a ride! Not only was it challenging to balance the many responsibilities that came with teaching seventh, eighth and ninth graders, but it was also incredibly lonely at times. I was learning how to teach, but more importantly, I was learning who I was.
In fact, every year of teaching has taught me new lessons about who I am and who I want to become. While I was fortunate to have roommates who were learning and teaching right along with me, I hadn’t yet learned how to ask for—or accept—help.
My students became my lifeline. They shared their lives and stories with me in the classroom, on the soccer field and in the community. While they were coming of age as students, I was coming to voice as a teacher. That first year, my teacher identity was forged in the fire, and as a result, I became more creative, compassionate and resilient.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Lacy: My high school English teachers made a lasting impact on me, solidifying my love of reading and writing, but also challenging me to expand my worldview. My high school math and science teachers encouraged me to develop a growth mindset, where I learned to take calculated risks and embrace change. In graduate school, I have learned from professors who have gently urged me to develop into a more conscientious and committed teacher, leader and advocate.
Over the past 16 years, my mom has been a kindergarten teacher, fourth grade teacher, academic coach, assistant principal, principal, and is now the Director of Educational Technology for Los Lunas Schools. Thirty years ago, my mother-in-law started a high school child development and daycare program to support teen parents in Belen. My closest friend is a teacher, community advocate and grant writer who has worked in middle schools, high schools, colleges and the New Mexico Higher Education Department to pursue her life’s work of educational equity and social justice.
Every day, as a teacher leader in my district, I am surrounded by educators who put students first, are willing to think outside the box and are eager to learn from one another. In fact, on the day I received my Milken Award, I was not surprised to see that one of the most respected and joyful educational leaders I have ever met was a Milken Educator 20 years ago [Juliette Romero Benavidez (NM '98), now the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and accountability for Los Lunas Schools]. These educators remind me to teach with joy, lead with compassion and act with conviction.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Lacy: A week before the Milken Educator Award notification, my principal came to me and asked for my help at an upcoming assembly for the Secretary of Education for the State of New Mexico, Dr. Ryan Stewart. She explained that the folks from the state education department had a very tight schedule and that she might need help on the day of the event. Because of that, I sat in the front row of the bleachers, near students of mine.
After the welcoming remarks, Dr. Stewart addressed our school, sharing the importance of education in his life and his commitment to educational equity. Then Dr. Candice McQueen addressed our students and explained how important teachers are in the lives of children. As she encouraged students to consider teaching as a profession I kept my eye on my principal, but I began to think about Emily and Yolanda, two students who were sitting next to me, and how great they would be as teachers. I wondered: How do we prepare and recruit energetic, compassionate, and dedicated young people to a profession like teaching?
I was caught so off guard when I heard my name, so surprised by the honor, and so overwhelmed by the attention. The rest of the day was a complete blur. Looking back, I think to myself, “Wow. That was all for me?” I am so grateful and humbled by the recognition.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Lacy: The Milken Award has planted a seed in my community, especially among students. When the shock of this honor began to wear off, I realized that students now respond differently to me. Their eyes light up when they see me. I’m no longer the first to say hello in the hallway or grocery store. Students from years past have reached out to say thank you, and students I have never even taught come to me for help.
Since October, I’ve had many more meaningful conversations with students about their life goals. Despite the celebrity and celebration of the Milken Educator Award notification day, receiving this award seems to have humanized me and my colleagues. Our students no longer see us as “just teachers,” but as professionals who are striving to get better and make a difference every single day.
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000 Award?
Lacy: A couple of years ago, my family and I purchased a few acres of land in the village where I teach. Our long-term goal was to lay down some roots and build a home and a life aligned with our values. As an Air Force brat, I moved a lot growing up, and I’d like our two young boys—currently three and five years old—to remember their childhood as one surrounded by family. Our plan is to build our home near my parents’ future home on this land. This Award will help us take meaningful steps closer to those goals.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Lacy: I believe we are “successful” if we have made a difference in the lives of others, lived a life aligned with our values, and achieved meaningful and challenging goals along the way. I want my students to know that they have options, and even when there are limits, that there are opportunities that they can either find or create.
Of course, success can just as easily be defined by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”
MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?
Lacy: At the end of every school year (and sometimes at the end of each semester), I made it part of my reflective practice to have students write me a letter with specific sentence stems to prompt their thinking. For example, “As I look back on this school year, I realize _____”; “In this class, I have learned _______”; “Looking forward, I hope _________”; “In this class, I most appreciated ______”; and “Of course, there is always room for improvement. This class would have been better if ______.” I keep those letters in a box, with other student notes and mementos, and on difficult days, I choose a letter to remind me why I teach.
To answer this question, I returned to that box of letters, chose three, and shared three things I want students to remember from their time with me:
- Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.
- The struggle is real for everyone, so be empathetic and kind as you seek understanding and create a lasting positive impact.
- Every person is on a journey. Never stop learning and never stop growing. The journey might be hard, but it is worth it.
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