Maria Rivera, Second Grade Teacher, Mount Holly, Burlington County
I always was interested in history, but they did not have any positions for a social studies teacher, so just to get my foot in the door I was offered a 5th grade special ed. (and I am special ed. certified). And then I did ESL for a little while, and now I do 2nd grade and I love it.
I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My grandmother had 13 kids, and I was the first to graduate out of all the grandkids. I had a daughter my first year of college. I married my childhood sweetheart, and we had kids young. That was a huge thing for me. I just didn’t want to be paycheck to paycheck. I wanted more for my life.
I work in a low socioeconomic area, so I try to let my kids know that I come from the same background as them. I have been there: I grew up in a rough neighborhood, but that should never stop you from achieving your dreams. I have that connection with them.
My first year, I had a student who was kicked out of several schools before he came to my classroom. I was his special ed. teacher when he came, and I got to work with him every day. He was emotionally disturbed; he even mentioned they had him in padded rooms. I was terrified of having him in my classroom at first because this was my first year teaching special ed. He would throw desks; he would throw hole-punchers: it was so bad. But I kept working with him, helping him to feel safe, and after a couple of months he started changing.
One of the ways I approach teaching is that I do a lot of classroom transformation. I would have a calming, soothing corner, and every month I would change my room. I think that helped him to feel safer, and he just improved so much. Recently I went to the middle school for a meeting with the superintendent, and I saw he got student of the month. I was thrilled for him. He has not been a disciplinary problem since he was in my class. He has gone on to be on the honor roll, and his mom wrote me a letter that said, ‘He is doing much better. He is a changed boy, and it’s because of you.’ He was kicked out of school after school before he came to my classroom, and now he is thriving.
Interview and photo by Gregory Andrus. If you would like to nominate a teacher for this series, please contact Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org.