6 Superstar Latinx Teachers Making Waves in Their Communities
Just a few of the superstar educators who go above and beyond for their students.
The Tech Mentor
Santa Rosa Academy Menifee, California
He may have been a Silicon Valley software engineer in a previous life, but Tavarez didn't find his true calling until he entered the classroom. Now the Mexican American teacher and dad of four finds ways to incorporate his technical background into lessons by introducing second-graders to the basics of coding. He uses blocks, flash cards, and coding apps such as Scratch Jr, but most of all he focuses on teamwork. "Collaborating and problem solving are 21st-century skills that have to be taught," he says. "They're crucial to students' futures."
- Start-up vibes: Tavarez models his classroom after a tech company. Every morning, they have a stand-up meeting to discuss "blockers"—obstacles to getting stuff done. And then they get to work on group projects using Google Workspace tools.
- Play to learn: Tavarez sets up an obstacle course and has kids write a script of commands ("Turn," "Go left") to complete it. They have a blast and learn coding basics, Tavarez says. Game on!
Woodbrook Elementary School Charlottesville, Virginia
A Spanish and ESL teacher, Soto still remembers the struggles she faced navigating college after immigrating to the U.S. from Peru. That's one reason she became an educator. "I want to do everything in my power to ensure that kids learn, despite what's going on in their lives." Last October, when one of her ESL students kept falling asleep in class or missing school altogether, Soto sprang into action. She worked with the girl's mother to better manage her schedule. And, by November, the student was at 100 percent attendance.
- The extra mile: During the pandemic, Soto drove to her students' homes to drop off supplies and handouts, and she created personalized videos guiding them on using school-provided tech.
- La gran fiesta: Five years ago, Soto started a Hispanic Heritage Night at her school, complete with poetry and music en español, salsa dancing, arts and crafts, and even a virtual tortilla-making party during the pandemic. "I make sure we do it big, the Latino way!" Soto says. "It packs the school."
The Diversity Advocate
Summit Lakes Middle School Lee's Summit, Missouri
Medrano, a Mexican American mom of three, grew up in a close-knit Latinx community in East Los Angeles, but after moving to the Midwest as an adult, she often found that she was the only person of color around. "When my daughter came home from kindergarten one day, overjoyed that she'd met another Latina girl at school, I knew I had to do something to create more awareness of other cultures." So she modified her fourth-grade lessons to be more inclusive, teaching kids about Indigenous history, women's rights, and the experiences of other marginalized groups. Medrano didn't stop there: She went as far as confronting administrators about implementing school-wide curriculum changes. "I decided to be unapologetically authentic and fearless in my approach," says Medrano, who was recently promoted to assistant principal in her district. "And it worked. Once everyone saw how engaged my students were, they got on board."
- Immersive learning: Her lessons have included a virtual tour of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic trail, Zoom interviews with athletes of color in the community, and Día de los Muertos celebrations.
- Education philosophy: "It's better to discuss race, heritage, and differences now so kids are comfortable doing so in the future. I always ask them, 'What are your takeaways? How are you feeling?' "
The Music Aficionado
Palmetto Elementary School Pinecrest, Florida
After discovering the saxophone at age 12, Diez was hooked. "It opened up a world of creative possibilities for me. I only wish I had been introduced to other instruments in elementary school—not just the recorder," he says. So when the Cuban American dad of two was hired as a music teacher fresh out of college, he set about starting a first-of-its-kind music program for kids in first through fifth grades. Today the school has two bands, a jazz combo, a drum line, a choir, and even a string orchestra, and Diez's students have been invited to perform at Carnegie Hall, in New York City.
- Good reviews: Three of Diez's former students have gone on to study at The Juilliard School, in New York City, and another two are professional recording artists.
- Teaching secret: Though Diez focuses on building an appreciation of music slowly, he has high expectations for his students. "I don't underestimate them," he says. "Kids respond to learning that's engaging, but challenging too."
The College Role Model
Aiton Elementary School Washington, D.C.
The fourth- and fifth-grade teacher is all about encouraging students to plan for their futures. Right. Now. "I'm a first-generation college graduate," says Diasgranados, who is African American and Colombian. "It took seeing others who looked like me to believe that I could go far." So Diasgranados puts college front and center in his classroom. He places students in reading groups named after real-life universities and has them "apply" to these schools, even sending them mock acceptance letters. "When my students open the letters, they get so excited," Diasgranados says. "It reminds me of why I got into teaching: to bring joy into the classroom."
- Visualize and manifest: In 2018, when Diasgranados earned his master's in education at Johns Hopkins University, he bused 45 of his students to the ceremony and had them wear caps so they could experience the thrill of graduating.
- Major props: At 28, Diasgranados has already racked up a number of teaching awards, including 2021 DC Teacher of the Year. "It's an honor, especially since there are so few Black and Latinx teachers," he says. "I hope to inspire young men and women of color to see the profession of teaching as a possibility."
The Kid at Heart
Eugenia Gonzalez Centeno
Glendale, New York
The Ecuadorian Dominican mom of a 4-year-old son is the first to admit that she's strict. "I have a reputation for being tough but fair," says Gonzalez Centeno, who teaches third grade. But given the events of the past year, she knew she had to loosen up. "I decided to become the cool tía," Gonzalez Centeno says. She scheduled themed classes, such as "Pajama
Day" and "Silly Hat Day." For "Mornings at the Beach," in the winter, kids wore bright tops and sunglasses and also chose tropical virtual backgrounds.
- Lunch lessons: Last school year, because of restrictions, Gonzalez Centeno and her students ate lunch in the classroom together instead of in the cafeteria. To keep things light, she played funny videos or led kids in games such as "Simon says." "Never in my career have I been silly every day for 45 minutes straight!" she says. "The kids loved it. They didn't want to leave school at the end of the day."
- A new outlook: Gonzalez Centeno is holding on to her playful side. "Student after student has told me how much they appreciated our time together this past year, and that has really meant the world to me."
This article originally appeared in Parents Latina magazine's August/September 2021 issue as "Let's Hear it For the Teachers."