As the school year concludes, teachers throughout Yakima Valley are winding up final projects, marking grades and packing up their classrooms for the summer.
The number of new professionals starting education careers has diminished in recent years, and a lack of teachers now plagues the Valley and beyond.
Earlier this spring, state Rep. Alex Ybarra of the 13th Legislative District, which includes Ellensburg and part of Yakima County, authored a bill that would help address this shortage, making requirements to enter teaching preparation programs more flexible.
House Bill 1621 passed the House and Senate by overwhelming margins. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it April 24.
But last summer, even without HB 1621, area schools added new teachers.
Last fall, the Yakima Herald-Republic sat down with three teachers new to the classroom to find out what drew them to the profession. We caught up with them to see how the first year went — and ask what advice they have for those entering the classroom next school year.
Before Barbaro Moya began teaching science, reading and writing in Spanish to first-graders as part of the dual-language immersion program at Campbell Primary School in Selah, he spent more than three decades as an environmental scientist in Cuba. He also was head of the Institute of Meteorology there and would guest lecture at universities in Mexico and Brazil on topics like climate change and pollution.
“My kids have learned the regular science of the program, but also with a lot more things from my personal experience as a scientist for 30 years,” the 56-year-old said last week, looking back on his first year leading a classroom.
“For example, when we study the planets, (I teach that) the hottest planet is Venus, not Mercury, but Mercury is the closest to the sun,” he said. “Why? Because the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere affects Venus. This is the same thing that’s happening with climate change in Earth. So I explain … why (our) planet has a fever, because it’s hotter than regular.”
Moya immigrated to the U.S. with his wife and two teenage daughters about five years ago before earning his teaching certificate from Heritage University. The opt-in program he now teaches in is one of only a handful in Eastern Washington geared at helping English- and Spanish-speaking students become bilingual and biliterate ahead of middle school.
Moya said as part of some assignments, he asked his young students to research a topic at home and present to the class in Spanish. Often, they would surprise him with their thorough exploration of topics and the reach of their Spanish vocabulary when presenting, he said.
“It’s like you plant a seed, and it’s growing,” he said.
Watching this growth has been one of the biggest changes from previous school years, when Moya worked as a substitute and student teacher at the grade school, to this school year.
“(Before) I (would) only prepare my lesson and teach the lesson” when teachers needed substitutes, he said. “Now I have to check the growth of every student and prepare my lessons according to (the needs of) every student.”
To do this, Moya said he’s read at least six books this year on classroom management in an effort to address the various learning styles of his students. Part of the challenge is combining Cuban, Mexican, American and Mexican-American cultures to ensure the classroom is accessible to all of his students, he said.
“Everybody learns, but not everybody learns the same way,” he said.
Other teachers throughout the school have provided Moya with support and input that has helped guide his teaching experience in the first year, he said.
“The school works like a machine. Everybody is a piece and everyone works with a different piece,” he said. “You never know everything.”
Moya’s advice to new teachers is to be humble enough to ask for advice and help. But he also said teachers should use the very skill he is attempting to instill in his students:
“You have to research,” he said.
“I’m very passionate about hoping I can get my students to love learning, and that happens in the elementary level,” Jaime Groves said in the fall, before entering her first year as a kindergarten teacher at Summitview Elementary School in West Valley.
Groves spent the year finding opportunities to get her 17 students engaged with their lessons. She tailored learning to their specific learning styles as she could, and created activities that would be memorable for them.
Students dressed up in operating room gear during “doctor day” and rotated throughout the classroom conducting various procedures, for example.
“They were doctors, but each of their patients gave them the opportunity to practice a skill,” the 26-year-old said. “They were a vet at one station, and their job was to match the animal with the word. So they had to read the word and come up with the animal.”
On a separate occasion, they learned about blending colors by mixing colored water.
Groves said she tried to minimize the amount of time students spent listening to her lecture and doing pen-and-paper assignments — something she was doing by default, but is learning more about from a districtwide personalized learning group to which she belongs.
“Basically what we want to see is students having voice and choice within their learning,” she said.
During literacy units in her class, for example, rather than Groves dictating a set amount of time students must spend in each unit, they can determine which units they might want more time in. She said she’s seen student engagement grow through an emphasis on this learning approach.
For Groves, the relationships she has formed with her students throughout the year have been a highlight.
“Relationships are the core of learning, in my opinion. I mean, if my students didn’t know I cared about them, they might not learn anything,” she said.
Getting to know what they are interested in has also helped her understand what motivates each student individually, Groves said.
But relationships with her team of kindergarten teachers have also been a highlight, and helped her to explore new approaches to teaching.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Groves said as advice to other first-year teachers. “There’s so many people around to help and support you. Be flexible and OK with imperfection.”
Your classroom doesn’t need to look perfect, she observed.
“As long as you’re doing what’s best for the kids, that’s what matters,” she said.
Graciella Hernándes spent two years at Barge-Lincoln Elementary School in Yakima tutoring students struggling with reading before she began teaching her first classroom of 26 third-graders in the fall. Some of the students she tutored were in her class this year, which she taught while getting her master’s in education at Heritage University in Toppenish, wrapping up earlier this spring.
Entering the school year, one of her goals was to expose her students to new cultural experiences, having learned during her time tutoring that many had not seen beyond Yakima’s city limits.
“I’m really wanting to inspire that sense of curiosity about the world around them,” she told the Yakima-Herald Republic at the time.
Throughout the year, Hernándes said she tried to integrate these lessons into small moments throughout the school day.
“At the beginning of the year, all of my ‘go’ words to release students to go and do their activity or go to the door, I did all states. So if it was Arizona, they’d have to wait for me to say ‘Arizona’ and then they’d go to the door,” she said last week.
“Then they (would) look down at the map and they start to recognize where places are,” she added, nodding to an expansive rug with a map of the U.S. on it.
Through books, the 26-year-old Latina teacher showed them new countries and cultures, as well as protagonists they could relate to.
Barge-Lincoln’s student population is 93 percent Latino. So while Hernándes made an effort to buy books such as one about a girl’s trip to the Philippines, many others were Spanish or dual-language. One of her childhood favorites, for example, is “Radio Man.” It tells the story of radio cadenas, or channels, in Spanish and English, and references one station in Sunnyside, she said.
“With my own background, I’m able to add in a bit of extra information, which I think has really helped them,” she said. “If you know someone who’s been to China, then China becomes a little bit more real in your head when you’re a kid.”
This reaches beyond books.
Below her surname on the whiteboard, Hernándes has written her fiance’s name, Inaba, in its original Japanese writing, for example. On the wall of the classroom is a postcard from Hernándes’ sister during a trip to Brazil. When her cousin returned from a holiday in Portugal, she brought back sardine key chains for each student. One of her students’ final projects was to research and report on a country of their choosing.
A highlight of the first year running her own classroom was seeing students struggle with materials and then have it click. But Hernándes also learned from the classroom, and from teachers around her, which she encouraged other teachers entering the field to do.
“Ask as many questions as you can to other teachers, every single one of them even if they’re a different grade or different subjects,” she said. “There are a lot of surprises, so the best you can prepare yourself before you go into it (the better).”
“The interesting thing this year was focusing on bringing in those books, I actually have a lot of students that don’t speak Spanish or are non-Latino and they’re really interested in learning the language."
This story has been updated to say Inaba is written in Japanese.