Spotlight: Manny Zaldivar (CT '16)January 23, 2017
At the beginning of the school year, first-grade teacher Manny Zaldivar (CT '16) asked his students whether any of them wanted to grow up to be teachers; only a few said yes. What a difference one assembly can make! Since Zaldivar's Milken Award, students visit his classroom to talk about the Award, and Zaldivar is starting a club for aspiring educators. Zaldivar received Connecticut's 2016-17 Milken Educator Award on October 19, 2016, at Smalley Academy in New Britain.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Manny Zaldivar (CT '16): After college I spent a year with AmeriCorps. I was assigned to a kindergarten classroom, and the teacher asked me to help a little girl from Mexico, an English language learner, with her shapes. We would work together during math time and in the after-school program. After a week, she came into the after-school program, went over to the bucket of shapes, picked up a triangle, and proceeded to explain to me what it was. We shared a hug, and right then I knew that I wanted to feel that way for the rest of my life.
MEA: Why did you decide to teach elementary school?
Manny: We have to create a strong foundation for students so they can be successful later in their schooling life. My favorite thing is that you can prepare for each day but you never know what is actually going to happen. You have plan A, B, and sometimes C, but many days you have to go with plan D. It's fun to have a different day every day.
MEA: What was your first job ever?
Manny: I was an elevator operator at a warehouse in New York. I learned to be outgoing and help others, despite the fact that I didn't speak much English at the time—the job gave me a daily opportunity to practice. I always remind my students that it doesn't matter what you do or what you become in life as long as you try to be the best at what you do.
MEA: You grew up in Honduras. How did your own school experience compare with the school where you teach now?
Manny: In Honduras I was always in a classroom with 30 or more kids. I only went to school from 7 a.m. to noon. I don't remember reading much; it was all about memorization and reciting back what you learned. I went to second grade without even knowing how to write my name. We didn't have textbooks or math manipulatives. I remember the teacher standing in the front of the room and lecturing. Many teachers had students mentor other kids, and I really enjoyed that. One big similarity between Honduras and my school now is that the teachers always tried their best, worked hard and cared about their students.
MEA: Who was your own most memorable elementary school teacher?
Manny: Mrs. Gloria, my second- and third-grade teacher. She took the time to teach me the alphabet, basic number skills and how to write my name. She was always gentle and had a way that showed me that she cared about my education.
MEA: What was your favorite subject?
Manny: My favorite subject was math. My least favorite was reading, and the hardest was writing. I had to do a lot of extra work, especially with spelling and grammar—I have trouble with those in English too. As a second language learner, you have to have a strong academic foundation in your first language, so that you can transfer those skills to your second language. Many times it took me longer to complete writing assignments. I had to work with my older siblings and aunt at home to complete them. My aunt values education and she helped me a great deal.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Manny: I became a co-teacher at Family Life Academy Charter School in the Bronx for a group of 30 kids. I taught Spanish, math and writing. One day a student was misbehaving, really getting out of control. I decided to talk to him and hug him. I told him I cared for him and that I really enjoyed teaching him. He looked me in the eyes and did not say a word. A few days later he was running around, came to a stop, looked at me and said, "I care about you too."
The hardest thing about my first year was behavior management and determining what students needed to know at the end of first grade. I had to learn a lot about how to create routines, procedures and a positive, caring environment. It was easy to determine where my students were academically at the beginning of the year, but it took me a while to develop a plan to help them achieve grade-level standards.
The biggest surprise was learning that my group of students had many needs, not only academically, but also emotionally. I found myself becoming a social worker, psychologist, friend, father, etc.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Manny: It has inspired my students to become teachers. At the beginning of the year I asked if any of them wanted to be teachers; only a few said yes. Now most of them say they do. Many students say hi to me in the hallways and express how proud they are of me. They stop by and talk to me about the Award and what it means. I am actually creating a club for students who are interested in becoming teachers.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Manny: That I loved them, cared for them and held them to high standards. That anything is possible. Always give your best. Be kind. And never stop learning. But most of all, I want them to remember that it's okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Manny: I invite them to come into the classroom during our English Language Development time. I make a lot of positive phone calls. I have conducted workshops for them about sight words and homework strategies. I send newsletters and notes home. I have reading logs that parents have to sign every night. I always have 100 percent attendance at parent-teacher conferences.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Manny: Guided reading time, when I do my small group instruction. I really get to interact with the kids when we're in a small group. I can address their individual needs and watch them grow academically, but most of all this is a great time for me to develop a stronger relationship with them and tap into their personal interests.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Manny: Bilingual teachers have to do a lot of extra work to make sure students comprehend the English language. We work on developing their English skills at the same time that we're teaching other subject areas. Balancing and intertwining both aspects is definitely a challenge.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars to use for your school, what would you do with it?
Manny: That's a lot of money! I would develop an after-school program to teach parents how to help their children succeed academically and emotionally. I strongly believe that we have to educate parents on how to help their children. Many of our parents don't know English, which makes it difficult for them to help their kids. I would also create professional development for teachers on how to incorporate English Language Development (ELD) strategies into non-ELD classrooms. Many of these strategies would increase the classroom expectations and result in improved student achievement. And I would become an instructional coach at our school to implement and monitor the use of the ELD strategies.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Manny: I thought about working with computers, programming or managing computer applications for the travel industry. I have always wanted to travel the world and get to know people.
MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Manny: First of all, we have to elevate our profession. There should be more conferences for high school students that promote the benefits of becoming an educator. We have to create programs for all grades to help students to explore our profession.
To motivate and retain new teachers, we must create mentoring programs or bring coaching back into our school system. Many new teachers need an experienced person to guide them and push them out of their comfort zone. We provide individual instruction for our students and coach them to perform to higher levels; we must take a similar approach with new teachers. We need a support system that will boost student achievement and allow new teachers to feel secure and be successful.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when…."
Manny: My students can use concepts and skills taught in the classroom on their own. Parents become involved in their children's academic life and are able to help them at home. There is an open collaboration among teachers to share best practices.
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