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Sixth grade teacher Luis Vega instructs students during a Language and Literature; Individuals and Societies class Sept. 28, 2022, at Mapleton’s Global Intermediate Academy in Denver. Vega is 33 and in his first year of teaching. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

As classroom challenges brought on by the pandemic sent many Colorado teachers fleeing the field or retiring early, they gave other teachers all the more reason to stay and didn’t deter newcomers from chasing a career in education.

Teachers across the state have had to contend with a lot of outside noise over the past two-and-a-half years: Some have been scrutinized by parents, school board representatives and community members who question what and how they’re teaching students. Many have had to wrestle with the harsh realities of low pay, rising housing costs and workloads stretched at the seams. Many have also had to cope with local school board politics and national issues — including debates over pandemic protocols and controversies over how to introduce race and history to kids — while trying to keep their focus on the classroom. And most all have had to find a way to be nimble with their lessons, ready to deliver them in-person, online or sometimes both.

But for all the commotion threatening to steal their attention from teaching kids, it hasn’t kept many teachers from staying the course in their districts. Other new teachers understand firsthand how difficult it is for students to learn through COVID disruptions after taking coursework to become licensed at the height of the pandemic.  

The Colorado Sun interviewed four teachers in their inaugural year about what steered them toward a career in teaching at a time educators have been inundated with new responsibilities and mounting pressure to get kids back on track with their learning.

The stakes have never been higher, but for these four, neither has their motivation to teach.

Once a struggling reader. Now a reading teacher.

Isabel Stevens stumbled with reading as a kid, and it’s because of her struggles with literacy that she can now help her students through the moments they’re tempted to close their books.

“I just didn’t love sitting still and I think I didn’t get a firm foundation in, like, phonics, and so reading was just hard for me,” said Stevens, 24, who teaches fourth graders how to read at Avery-Parsons Elementary School in Buena Vista.

She remembers feeling like she was trailing her classmates as she bristled at writing assignments and was slow to finish tests, difficulties that made school the last place she wanted to be.

Now, in her first year teaching, it’s become something entirely different — fun.

First-year teacher Isabel Stevens with her fourth-grade students Tuesday during class at Avery-Parsons Elementary School in Buena Vista. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Her first months in her classroom have been overwhelming as her days stream by in a blur, filled with lesson planning, grading, getting to know parents and other teachers, and trying to remember 75 students’ names.

“It’s like you’re building a plane and you’re flying it at the same time,” Stevens said. “It’s hard because everything is thrown at you all at once.” 

Despite her learning setbacks, Stevens has envisioned a career teaching since childhood. She veered from that goal, briefly, as she pursued a degree in speech therapy so that she could focus on fewer students at one time. The idea of juggling close to a couple dozen students intimidated her at first, but before long, she adjusted to the slow pace of helping kids master their speech and came to crave the challenge. Stevens returned to college in 2021 and completed a master’s degree in elementary education in one year through an online program.

She’s found her way by leaning on other staff members and recalling what worked for her as a fledgling reader — and what didn’t. She empathizes with the boys in her class who fidget and the girls who insist on constantly chatting.

“I was that kid, too,” Stevens said.

Now, she tries to incorporate movement into her lessons so that her students don’t have to sit still the whole period, bringing them outside or showing them videos that relate to the stories they’re reading. And she incentivizes them to read by offering them points that will add up and reward them with a party.

First-year teacher Isabel Stevens with her fourth-grade students Tuesday at Avery-Parsons Elementary School in Buena Vista. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Stevens, who moved to Colorado from Kansas last year, said teaching is “daunting,” but she plans to keep working with kids for a couple years and then re-evaluate whether the classroom is still the best place for her. She has combated discouragement from others, who are quick to point out low teacher pay and testy kids, and battled a stubborn public narrative that diminishes the importance of her job.

“I think some people think teaching is just babysitting,” she said. “It’s really not. You’re really trying to help them grow in their education so they can read and write and be a competent student.”

Stevens keeps coming back to the same answer when questioned about her drive to teach: She knows what it’s like to struggle in school and wants to be the kind of anchor she needed.

“You’re making an investment in the future because kids are the future, right?” she said. “And so if you’re helping them one day at a time and adding value to their lives by loving them but also teaching them, then hopefully they’ll add value to other people’s lives.”

Moved by social justice

Joselyne Garcia-Moreno has wanted to teach students ever since she was a student herself, but while her childhood ambitions centered on being able to continue showing up to a school every day, her reasons have shifted.

“It’s a work of social justice for me,” said Garcia-Moreno, who teaches math at Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver. “It just came to a place where I knew I wanted to be a teacher and I had to be a teacher more than I wanted to be. I have to be.”

She also knew that she had to teach at her alma mater, which is why she boomeranged back to Abraham Lincoln High School for her first year in the classroom. 

Math teacher Joselyne Garcia-Moreno assists a student Sept. 22 at Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver. Garcia-Moreno, 22, is a graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School and is in her first year of teaching after working as a paraprofessional for two years until 2020. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Garcia-Moreno, 22, was born in Denver but spent much of her years growing up bouncing between Mexico and other states. She was 7 years old when she moved to Mexico with her parents, and by the time she returned to the United States — to Bennett, 35 miles east of Denver — at age 14, she was starting high school with a limited grasp of English. In both Bennett and Oklahoma, her family’s next destination, she suffered microaggressions and felt isolated as she tried to learn English. It wasn’t until she moved back to Denver and started at Abraham Lincoln High School her sophomore year that she was flooded with support from teachers who nurtured her learning and eventually enrolled her in honors courses after believing in her potential.

“I knew that I wanted to come back to hopefully give that experience to someone else,” Garcia-Moreno said.

It was also at Abraham Lincoln High School that she started to explore a teaching career, taking a concurrent enrollment course through the University of Colorado Denver in which she began to draw connections between social justice and education.

“It just clicked,” she said. “I just knew that that’s the reason why I have to do it, and ever since then, I went for it and I have fought for it and here I am.”

She continued to focus on a future in teaching while in high school, completing additional courses through which she earned a paraprofessional certificate. Once Garcia-Moreno graduated high school in 2018, she returned to her school to work as a para for two years before becoming a graduate assistant for the concurrent enrollment program. She graduated from CU Denver with a bachelor’s in math in 2021 and received a master’s degree in secondary mathematics education along with her teaching license earlier this year. 

She is still juggling her own coursework with that of her students as she is now pursuing a doctorate degree in Latinx communities and learning. It’s made for long days for the novice teacher, who often spends an extra three hours per day lesson planning and grading assignments outside of tackling her post-graduate workload.

But with her relentless schedule comes moments that make it all worth it. Garcia-Moreno refers to each of her students as a mathematician, much like she was as a toddler as she sat to solve basic math problems with her dad for fun. Struggling with numbers and calculations wasn’t always fun as she continued grade by grade. But as math has clicked for Garcia-Moreno, it has added to her confidence — a lesson she tries to drill into her students as they attempt algebra functions. Some flail. So she focuses on helping them learn how to be a student again after so many pandemic disruptions.

Math teacher Joselyne Garcia-Moreno instructs students at her alma mater Abraham Lincoln High School . She is juggling her own coursework with that of her students as she pursues a doctorate degree in Latinx communities and learning. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

That’s why she stays, even when people around her, including her parents, worry she works too hard for a salary they insist should be higher.

“We’re trying to help kids be better people, be better professionals for the future,” Garcia-Moreno said.

“Just beautiful organized chaos everywhere”

Luis and Katalina Vega trudged through every step of school together on their way to becoming teachers, taking every course side by side, studying with one another and staying up until 2 a.m. to write papers.

The couple, who have been married for nearly 11 years and live in Arvada with their son, discovered their need to teach at different stages in their lives. But now, a month and a half into their first year, they share the same kind of spark for shaping students’ lives.

Luis, 33, has felt a pull toward the classroom for as long as he can remember. About five years ago, he turned to Katalina, now 28, and told her he was ready to take the first step toward becoming an educator. He didn’t want to face a surge of regret one day for neglecting his dream of working with kids.

Sixth grade teacher Luis Vega instructs students during a Language and Literature; Individuals and Societies class Wednesday at Mapleton’s Global Intermediate Academy in Denver. Vega is 33 and in his first year of teaching. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The pair began classes, older than most of their peers. Katalina eyed a career in law enforcement and, in need of a bachelor’s degree to head in that direction, she decided to study education.

“Somewhere along the way, I just fell head over heels with education and becoming a teacher,” she said, adding, “I wanted a chance to become the change I didn’t see.”

Luis and Katalina, who previously owned a small business in exportation together, earned bachelor’s degrees in elementary education through CU Denver, and both began teaching full time in Mapleton Public Schools this year after student teaching in the district.

Luis, a sixth grade teacher at Global Intermediate Academy in Denver, has found both joy and challenges in his first year.

“This is a profession where you have to reflect every day on how you practice it,” he said. “You have to be open to change and definitely understand that things do not go as planned.”

It’s a lesson that has resounded across both their classrooms this year as they’ve each grappled with how to nudge kids to where they need to be, both academically and personally.

“We need to make sure that our students are academically prepared, and the pandemic definitely did throw a wrench in that. … Kids have so much stress,” Luis said. “Families have so much stress and so much chaos.”

Katalina Vega, a fourth grade teacher at Welby Community School of the Arts in Denver, coaches students Wednesday as they write their poems while her class learns about the elements of poetry in the school’s outdoor classroom treehouse. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Katalina, a fourth grade teacher at Welby Community School of the Arts in Denver, sees that chaos seeping into her classroom. Her first year has been full of “just beautiful organized chaos everywhere,” she said.

She and her husband have embraced it, blown away by the stories, knowledge and emotions their students show up with every day.

It’s the students who keep them rooted to their jobs and who help them look past the negativity they see on social media posts and news stories about teaching. 

“Kids deserve the best adults that have the heart to be able to teach,” Luis said.

“That show up for them and teach them how to show up for themselves,” Katalina said, picking up where he left off. “And simply seeing the impact that one person can have on a child’s life in a positive way of being an educator is worth everything in the world to me.”

Erica Breunlin

Email: erica@coloradosun.com Twitter: @EricaBreunlin