[ Teaching & Learning ]

Remembering your ‘Why’

Rebecca Grella

Jessica Sanchez, a member of the Brentwood Teachers Association, is an English language arts teacher in the same high school she attended. A 10-year teaching veteran, Sanchez has found that being an alum gives her a special connection with her students.
Returning to Brentwood was not a straight, easy line for me. I graduated college in 2010 when many teachers on Long Island were receiving excess letters. I would spend the next five years taking on leave replacements, teaching summer school and home teaching assignments; it felt like I was on a never-ending job interview. I had to make sure that I did the best job I could, day in and day out, or the next opening would go to someone else. When positions started opening, I was presented with job offers from two very different school districts. I could have chosen another district so I could experience something new. But I decided to stay in Brentwood because it is the only place where I felt that my presence as an alumnus and a Latina could make a deeper impact on the lives of the students sitting in front of me.

It’s important for students to see diversity in success stories that come from the same place they are coming from. The teachers I had growing up were amazing, but very few looked like me. I look around now and I see many more Latino educators and feel a sense of pride because together we have all been part of adding new voices to education.

Coming back to Brentwood was like coming back home. While I love discussing literature with my students, I would be lying if I said it was my strength. My true strengths lie in the connections I can make with my students, not in teaching them how to write a well-structured essay or analyze literature. While I can do these things well, I consider them a bonus to the magic that is already happening when the door closes.

When I stand in front of my classroom and I tell my students I’m a Brentwood alumnus, something immediately clicks, and they feel more at ease; there is a silent understanding between us where no words need to be spoken. This has always been the first connection I make with my students because we can relate to one another. Although a lot has changed since I was in high school, I once sat in the very same seats and experienced some of the same things my students have, especially when it comes to our culture. I have always used this as a steppingstone to form those initial bonds, and it has always benefited all of us — teacher and students alike.  

On my hardest days in the classroom, I try and remember my why: to be the teacher I needed when I was younger. I did not need my teachers to only stick to the curriculum, I needed for them to be empathetic and understand that at the end of the day, I was just a child trying to find my way. The reality is that teaching is more than just content, it’s about helping our students navigate life’s ups and downs the best we can. We may not always feel it, but each day we stand in front of that room we have the opportunity to change their lives for the better. The instant gratification is great, but the moment you run into a former student at a supermarket, on a random day, years after graduation, and they tell you how grateful they are for what seemed to you like the tiniest thing; you remember why you do this and it reignites your passion.

Each and every day I hope to be that change. I think of the teacher I would hope is standing in front of my own children on their worst days and I strive to be that person.

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What’s your why?

Countless talking heads outside the classroom have a lot to say. We want to hear from you. Why did you choose the teaching profession — and why do you stay? Send submissions up to 450 words, along with a photo, to united@nysut.org.