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We must be the role models we needed as students

Editor’s note: This article was written by Cesar Sanchez, the assistant principal at Denver’s Valdez Elementary, a dual language ECE – 5th grade innovation school in Denver Public Schools. He was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and immigrated to the United States at the age of 14. He attended Metro State College of Denver. He’s a longtime educator and advocate for all students. 

I love working with kids and being a role model for my students.

In my role as assistant principal at Denver’s Valdez Elementary, I collaborate with every staff member to ensure student needs are met academically and with social emotional support.

When I talk with kids, I always carry the message of the why because I want our students to make connections to real-life scenarios and situations that they will face later as young adults.

In one of my roles as an assistant principal, I support students with behavior. When I witness student conflicts, I brainstorm with students how that particular problem can get in their way to be successful in school and how to repair the damage that they caused to others. Frequently, I talk about college and adulthood with students to identify habits that transfer beyond elementary school.

Valdez is a dual language school, and it brings a lot of joy to my heart because students are always grappling with another language, which is not easy, and we support them in that journey every single day. The stories of my students are not unlike my own story.

My love for teaching started when I was a kid. I was patient with others who did not understand and was passionate about helping others. So, when I came to the United States at 14 years old and faced challenges, I knew education was where I needed to be to fuel that passion.

I did not always have a role model who I could look to, so I found motivation internally to do more than what was expected of me to find success.

When I first enrolled in high school, they placed me in 11th grade because of all the credits I had from Mexico, but I advocated for myself and knowing that a high school diploma would mean employers would expect me to know English, I decided to transfer high schools and enter 9th grade instead. This gave me more time to learn English and practice communicating, but it also gave me more time to play soccer, which was also a passion of mine.

My teachers in high school didn’t have the strategies to help me understand what I would need after graduation, so I found ways to continue to push myself to be prepared later in life. In college, I worked as a paraprofessional in DPS, and I found myself in the computer labs during lunchtime playing typing games so I could get better at typing on the computer; I couldn’t imagine writing all those college essays typing with one finger.

I spent seven years in the classroom, but I knew I wanted to help more kids on a wider scale, so I worked in the MLE department for the district supporting schools to better serve students learning English as a second language and I’ve spent the last six years at Valdez and feel very grateful to be there.

I always have my “let’s make the world better” hat on and being a bilingual educator opened that door to connect to my students in giving them an understanding about life. We teach culture at Valdez, not just the language, so students are able to learn more about other countries, and other cultures, and people who live in our communities from those countries.

All of our classrooms are half native English-speakers and half native Spanish-speakers. This is a great opportunity for me to help students learning English as a second language and to show my skill set. Also, to be a model for them in learning a new language, coming from a different country, and acknowledging that struggling happens, but learning to find the fun in those challenging situations can lead to success.

We have high expectations for all students even when they live in challenging situations. We know all our kids can do the work and we have strong role models that help them see that. Our systems are in place to support all our students and ensure that they see success in themselves.

I feel privileged to be a leader of color in our district because it gives me a unique opportunity to connect with families. It allows families to trust us and ask questions they normally wouldn’t. Parents and families feel understood and heard. We are intentional in collaborating with teachers and staff and constantly monitoring students to see what is working well and what needs to be rectified.

We try to be innovators at Valdez and are always looking for a third way of doing things to benefit students. Our retention rates for teachers are very high and families stay with us for generations – we have parents who send their children and grandchildren to the school and that feels amazing.

I project myself as a very approachable person; I work hard to always be professional and a good role model for my students so they can see how what we do in elementary school applies to real life too.