Robert Carreon
Robert Carreon

McALLEN, RGV – As we sat around the table, deep in conversation with a group of educators from across Texas and Latin America, one of the teachers from Chile noted, “To help our students achieve everything we know they’re capable of, we must truly know them as an individual and a member of their community, meet them where they are, and start their journey to empowerment from that point.”

His insightful comment summed up a valuable lesson for all of us in the room: to throw open the door to opportunity for students growing up in poverty – both here in South Texas and around the world – teachers must ground their work in a deep understanding of the students’ community and cultural context.

As the executive director of Teach For America, last month I had the privilege of hosting 12 visiting teachers representing five Latin American countries and Spain. All 12 were members of the Teach For All network, a group of teacher training and support organizations committed to expanding educational opportunity around the globe. It was an uncommon opportunity for cross-cultural learning with professionals from regions that each possess their own unique challenges yet share many common characteristics.

During their two day trip to the Valley, the visiting teachers had the opportunity to share with local educators the challenges and triumphs they’ve experienced working to give their students growing up in poverty the excellent education they deserve. At the same time, these teachers were able to meet with excellent local teachers who shared best practices learned through experience teaching in low-income, Latino communities. Rob Garza, a Teach For America alumnus and 11-year audio video technology teacher in McAllen shared his approach to learning what inspires each of his students and using that spark to help them shape their vision for their future. Rob has won national recognition for his teaching excellence and his video production students have won regional, state, and national titles at student production competitions.

Additionally, the visiting teachers met with the staff at The Family Hope Center, which supports vulnerable children and families living in poverty in the colonias along the Texas/ Mexico border, to introduce the visiting teachers to the challenges facing members of the Valley’s highest-need communities. By getting to know just one of our Valley communities, the international teachers gained a valuable perspective into the realities of limited access to healthcare, poor nutrition and sanitation, linguistic difference, and community violence that too many of our local students bring with them into the classroom every day.

As I learned from our visitors, nations around the world are struggling with similar challenges of poverty that we here in the Valley are working to overcome. A growing number of our public schools are meeting that challenge and providing exemplars of the high expectations and bold outcomes we should demand for all children. Yet we have a long way to go to make equality of opportunity a reality for every child.

The rich cultural heritage of our communities offers many resources that educators and advocates at all levels of leadership can tap to provide our students with the educational opportunity that will help them break the cycle of poverty and reach for their dreams. On the heels of Hispanic Heritage month, we have a powerful moment to acknowledge that we owe it to our children to work collaboratively to ensure that we are drawing on all of the resources at our disposal – from here at home and around the world – to empower our children through education.