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Taking the Initiative

Michelle Sanchez

Michelle Sánchez '11

Michelle Sánchez '11 is a special-education teacher at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School in Los Angeles, and it's a career that she finds full of rewards. One reward she probably didn't see coming was recognition from the White House under its new Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Founded by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and renewed by each successive president, the initiative showcases educators who strengthen the Latino educational landscape and explores systematic ways to enhance education for Hispanic Americans. Read on to see what Sánchez loves about teaching, what inspires her and what challenges she faces each day.

Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you along your career path? 

It helped me develop a wide range of skills—and to embrace my voice and feel empowered, which I transfer on to my students today. My double major in American studies and Spanish helped me to fine-tune my writing skills (in both English and Spanish), which has given me the advantage when working with Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking families. I often help colleagues with translations and communicating with families. 

What was your favorite activity at Dickinson?

Working as a student athletic trainer was so much fun, and I’m thankful for the athletic department for taking me on, training me to treat injuries, help with rehabilitation and travel with sport teams. I wasn’t able to compete anymore, but I was still involved in athletics and still am today as an assistant track and cross-country coach at the high school where I teach. 

How do you stay involved with Dickinson?

I donate what I can and make sure it goes to scholarships, such as my own: Posse. I give back to my community by teaching at my alma mater, and I feel it’s also important for me to give back to future Posse Scholars. 

How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most? 

I spent a summer up in Sacramento with Breakthrough Collaborative. I learned about Breakthrough through our Posse career program manager. I highly recommend the teaching internship program for anyone who is thinking about teaching; it’s a great opportunity to create your own units of study and develop relationships with students to get them motivated and ready for college.

Teaching is a beautiful profession. What excites me most is seeing the progress of a student from the beginning of the year to the end—those “ah ha” revelations that occur throughout the year for kids. Or when you know that a student is proud of their work or has overcome a personal obstacle—those are the exciting parts. Working with kids always keeps you on your toes; they keep me in check and inspire me to be my best self. 

What does your current work entail?

My work entails long hours of lesson planning, reflection, getting to know my students, evaluating student learning, phone calls/emails home, after-school and weekend practices, working through lunch or meeting with colleagues. You’d think teachers would get tired, but I don’t feel exhausted. The minute kids walk into my classroom, I get a burst of energy and am ready to go. 

What is the most challenging part of your work?

I have had the privilege of working with some amazing students and families. What has been challenging is knowing that your students have had to experience hunger or are sleep deprived because they had to commute across the city from a new shelter. Sometimes I don’t have words to share with them; all I can do is honor their space and give them that extra time that they need. The trials that some of our public-school students go through are symptoms of our larger economic issues. The best that I can do is give it my all—to help break these cycles so kids can reach their potential; every student deserves the best education no matter their circumstances. 

What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?

I was recognized by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics for serving my community through teaching. As a first-generation Latina, I am honored to be recognized for being a teacher. I’m an English, history, special education, technology and English as second language teacher and track and cross country coach. My parents immigrated from Costa Rica and Mexico for this “American dream”—el sueño americano. They came to the United States with just a few dollars in their pockets, working at night, taking English classes, cleaning houses: doing everything and anything to make sure my brother and I could focus on school and follow our passion—serving our communities. 

When the senior advisor of the White House initiative emailed me, a flood of teaching memories looped through my mind. In Boston, through Technology Goes Home, families were able to take courses with me and learn how to use Chromebooks, and they gained access to support 21st-century skill development. Families learned together and graduated earning a brand new Chromebook. With new laptops and skills in hand, these families felt a sense of empowerment with new access to resources. These different teaching memories and experiences stay with me. Now as a fifth-year teacher, I’m eager to start another school year. 

If you could have dinner with anyone famous, living or dead, who would it be?

I would love to have dinner with Gloria Anzaldúa. At Dickinson, I came across this amazing Chicana feminist writer who influenced my thesis for American studies, Contemporary Latina Identity. I loved how raw she was with her emotions and narrative. Anzaldúa was dynamic and fearless and empowered my latinidad. She helped me decipher layers of patriarchy, gender roles, sexuality and structures within my culture. Her poems and stories helped me as I constructed my own self—my Chicana, Latina, American self.

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Published August 2, 2016