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Accidental teacher: The zigzag path from PE sub to award-winning educator

A teacher stands with four graduating seniors who are wearing blue and white graduation gowns.

Christina Mendoza, an English language development teacher at Fort Lupton High School teacher, poses with 2019 graduates.

Courtesy of Christina Mendoza

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Today, Christina Mendoza is a teacher at Fort Lupton High School, but that wasn’t the plan when she graduated from college with an environmental science degree. 

“I actually became a teacher by accident,” she says.

After college, she was unemployed in a small Arizona town when the local school superintendent called her out of the blue. He’d heard she was an athlete in college and wondered if she’d take over for the physical education teacher who’d just quit. 

Mendoza said yes. Soon, she added science to the mix, and eventually found her passion helping English learners improve their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. 

Mendoza was recently named English Language Development Teacher of the Year by the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. She talked to Chalkbeat about her zigzag path to teaching, how she incorporates her grandpa’s army experience into lessons, and what she learned from tribal elders in Arizona.  

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

a head shot of teacher Christina Mendoza

Courtesy of Christina Mendoza

After graduating from college in Nebraska, I ended up in a small town in Arizona called Gila Bend, where I lived with my ex-partner. The superintendent of the school district where he taught contacted me and asked if I would be interested in teaching K-8 physical education since I had been a college athlete. 

I took the job because I hadn’t found one yet and taught physical education for the rest of the year. At semester break, the eighth grade science teacher needed a class to be split up because there were major behavior problems, so that class was added to my schedule as well. I LOVED teaching science and went on to teach middle school science for seven years. 

I was introduced to English language development as a first-year teacher when I had a few students who were from Mexico and did not speak any English. It takes a lot to modify assignments, notes, and presentations to ensure that students have access to content and curriculum. I was really passionate about teaching English language development so I pursued my master’s degree and have been teaching English language development for the past 12 years. 

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a teacher this year after nearly two years of the pandemic?

I am really big on relationships so when we have been in and out of school, I know that my students have struggled and so have I. I spend a lot of time helping students with other classwork and advocating for them with their teachers and sometimes the administration.

Students’ mental health has also been greatly impacted, especially when we were virtual for extended periods. I created lessons where students could talk about what was going on and if they were OK. For example, in April 2020, I created a lesson where students took a walk outside and took pictures of what they saw. We then shared these pictures and talked about them. We did this once a week. When we were online for 20-21, I would give them the same sort of assignment: Go cook something and take pictures; Watch something on Netflix and talk about it; Spend time with a family member and take pictures and write or talk about it. It helped kids practice their English skills but also connect with each other.

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

I loved school when I was growing up. I love science and history so as an English language development teacher I try to bring these passions into my classroom as often as possible. My favorites include World War II, urban legends from other cultures (my students love La Llorona — a legend about a weeping ghost woman), and social justice issues. I have found that the most important aspect of teaching is building relationships and getting to know your students. Once I have built these relationships, it’s easy to create units that my students are interested in because I know what motivates them and what they will be interested in learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach.

One of my favorite lessons to teach is about World War II. My grandpa was in the army and he sent my grandma photos and telegrams while he was stationed in Germany. I was lucky enough to have my grandma give me all of these items along with money from Europe, and I use this as an introduction to teaching “Prisoner B-3087” by Alan Gratz or the graphic novel [adaptation] of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” My students like hearing stories about my grandpa and having the realia also provides a hook for the unit. It’s fun for me to talk about my family and to show the personal connection that I have with such a significant event in history.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

When I was a first-year teacher in Arizona, our school was right next to a Native American reservation, and we had a group of elders from the T’ohono O’odham tribe come talk to us. They explained cultural differences and what to expect from students and families belonging to the tribe. This was my first real interaction with students who were not like me — white and middle class — and it was an eye-opening experience where I learned so much about my students that helped me connect with them based on their culture and beliefs. This was my first introduction to culturally relevant teaching and cultural competency and solidified my love for other cultures and languages.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on in your classroom?

I would say the community here in Fort Lupton has the misconception that COVID is no longer affecting schools. That’s completely false. Since school resumed in January we have had seven to eight teachers out a day. We have very few subs so teachers are subbing during their planning periods. Teachers are exhausted and burned out. It’s frustrating because I love my students and my community but this is not what I signed up for when I first started teaching.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

My biggest misconception was that college is for everyone, and all students must receive higher education. My parents are college graduates, and education was something my sister and I had to pursue. After interacting with students on a daily basis, I started to realize that college isn’t for everyone and that there needs to be a balance in schools to promote college as well as the trades. My husband is a lineman who works on power lines all day. He hated school and was unmotivated and bored most of the time. He is the polar opposite of me in terms of academics, and because of him, I can relate to students who don’t want to go to college. I promote the trades and bring my husband in to talk to my students as much as I can.

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