By Grace Dugan
At this year’s Best Practices in the Teaching of Writing Conference, Bruce Penniman, WMWP’s Site Director, presented the Pat Hunter Award for Outstanding Teacher Leadership as he usually does. Pat Hunter was one of the founding co-directors of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. As an educator and professional development leader in the Springfield Public Schools, she was a fierce advocate for teachers and students, recognizing them as our best hope for improving education. Rightfully so, this award annually recognizes a member of the WMWP community who has contributed substantially to the work of WMWP and who best exemplifies the values that Pat embodied in her work with teachers and writers. This year, Bruce presented the award to a truly inspiring educator and member of our WMWP community who is known for her outstanding teacher leadership and ability to embody “teacher as writer”: Alicia Lopez.
Alicia is currently a seventh and eighth grade ELL teacher in her 22nd year of teaching. In this time, she has also served as an assistant principal. She is extraordinarily connected to her family and shares their passion for educating others. In fact, she is currently working on a book with her mother, Sonia Nieto, called Teaching: A Life’s Work—A Mother-Daughter Dialogue, which details the experiences of a collective 75 years of educational experiences and is to be published this January by Teachers College Press.
To get a deeper look into what drives Alicia in her role as an educator and writer, we decided to ask her about her experiences and how they’ve shaped her approach to education.
WMWP: What is your background with education? How did you get started?
Alicia Lopez: I actually never wanted to be a teacher. I grew up with parents who were teachers and I wasn’t even remotely interested in teaching as a career! It wasn’t until my 21st birthday, when I went to hear Jonathan Kozol speak. He talked about the inequalities in education, and I suddenly knew that teaching was the most important thing I could do. But, I already had a plan to live in France for a few years, so I went ahead with my plan. When I came back, I was lucky to find a position teaching French in an all-girls private school in New York. You didn’t need teacher certification to teach in a private school, but my French accent and vocabulary were good enough for the French department head to hire me. Since then I’ve taught Spanish and for the last seven years, English Language Learners. I worked at that school for seven years, and it was a great start to my career in many ways--and you can read more about it in our book!
WMWP: What is your favorite part of being an educator? What is the most rewarding?
AL: I love writing curriculum that fits the needs and levels of my students. It’s a fun and creative process. The most rewarding is when a lesson goes well, and I can see kids are interested. It’s also rewarding when I see them later, and they thank me for what they learned with me.
WMWP: Is there any individual or philosophy that has guided your development as an educator?
AL: Every time I teach or plan a lesson, I channel my father. He is the most calm, patient person I know and was a teacher for years, and a beloved one. Throughout the years he has given me many creative ideas for lessons and projects. I also always have my mother in mind when I think about meeting my students’ needs on a cultural and personal level. They are my biggest influences as a teacher.
WMWP: What has been one of your most memorable successes?
AL: About seven years ago I had a student from Cape Verde who arrived in March, knowing barely any English. She had a drive to succeed and to learn quickly but she was often frustrated because she wasn’t able to communicate the way she wanted to. At the afterschool program at my school she was told that she couldn’t get academic help because a tutor could not understand her. She came to my classroom and cried, and I cried with her. Thanks to her drive to learn, she progressed quickly in my class. Though it was mostly due to her own work ethic, at the end of the school year she left me a note thanking me. It was very special, and I still treasure it. Four years later I went to her high school graduation, as I had promised her at the end of 8th grade, and we both cried again. She said that my class was where it all started, and she thanked me many times.
WMWP: You keep a blog about your experience as a teacher, can you elaborate on why and what its impact is?
AL: I started the blog as a way to celebrate my 20th year of teaching. For one month, I wrote to a daily prompt. After that, I just kept going, publishing weekly or every few weeks. It has come to be a place for me to reflect on my teaching and process things. Writing has always done that for me.
Alicia’s blog can be found at https://www.maestrateacher.com/.
WMWP: You and your mother are currently co-authoring a book. Would you expand on the topic, the research, the process, and the goal of the project?
AL: The process of writing a book with my mom is something I will forever treasure; it is time spent together that I can always look back on. She and I spent weekends away on writing retreats and some full day and half day retreats as well over the course of a year. She guided me on how to start, and kept guiding me in her gentle way throughout the process, so I could see how it is done. This is something I am incredibly grateful for. It still doesn’t seem real to me! The goal was to write an accessible and interesting book for teachers about teaching and education from two people who have “been in the business” for a total of about 75 years! We share the stories about how we got into education, stories about teaching, ideas about pedagogy, and reflections on our practice. It can be pre-ordered now from Teachers College Press and is officially released on January 4, 2019.
WMWP: If you could address a topic to the larger community, something you find important to reflect on or reevaluate, what would you ask?
AL: I would ask families, administrators, policy makers and politicians to deeply reflect on the value of teachers to the future of our country, and to then figure out how they can support our work and lift us up, so that we can feel proud of our work and continue to do what we do best: teach and guide our country’s future adults. I would ask that our unions be supported, that our administrators have our back and support us without fear, and that families take the time to see what we do and talk to us before criticizing our work. Teaching is hard enough, and we need all the support we can get. Let’s work as partners and collaborators!
To view a video of Alicia accepting the Pat Hunter Award, click the image below: