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Figure 1. The state of Texas, with the star indicating the location of the Rio Grande Valley.

The Rio Grande Valley, where I live and teach, is situated in southernmost region of the Lone Star state. When most people think of South Texas, they think of San Antonio or maybe Corpus Christi. However, we are a few hundred miles further south!

Local crops include cotton, sugar cane, and citrus — including the Ruby Red Grapefruit, which was developed and introduced here. Because it’s also home to a myriad of birds, birders from all over the world visit the region in order to view and identify species unique to the area.

In addition, we enjoy the warm Gulf waters around South Padre Island and an array of Mexican street food, whether it originates in our home state of Texas or from nearby Mexico.

This is a great place to live, and an even better place to teach. However, not many people know of the Rio Grande Valley — unless you love citrus, birds, and authentic tacos.

Now that you know a bit of my region, let me tell you about my journey to the classroom, and why teaching chemistry in the Rio Grande Valley is such a rewarding experience.

Natural curiosity

I have always had an innate scientific curiosity. Perhaps this stemmed from the influence of my parents during my childhood. My mom often noted the quick disappearance of household substances like dish soap and hydrogen peroxide. Looking back, I realize she probably knew I was making my concoctions and running experiments with her ingredients. I thought I was being sneaky, but like many parents, she knew what I was up to! These are special memories for me now, and I appreciate my mom’s willingness to allow me to study the world around me. It was through that experience that I became fascinated with the appearance of bubbles when the hydrogen peroxide came into contact with that “stuff” around the sink faucets.

My dad encouraged my scientific curiosity as well. He would always take me to museums, and I fondly remember our trip to the Griffith Observatory, in Los Angeles, in particular. I had learned about observatories in grade school and how they are located in isolated, mountaintop regions around the world — so I thought my chances of ever visiting one were slim. It was an impactful visit for me, because it made big science accessible to all. Seeing the Hollywood sign and stepping foot where a scene in the movie, “Rebel Without a Cause” was filmed was cool — but there was also an immense pendulum inside the observatory, which was even more impressive!

It wasn’t until I took chemistry in high school that I realized that it was actually the subject of chemistry that I had been constantly exploring. I began seeing chemistry everywhere. It was apparent in simple things, like the fizzy reactions taking place in my bathroom sink. But it was also in the complex, like the way scientists analyze the composition of gases in celestial bodies.

Luckily, my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Guerrero, was a chemistry genius. He opened my eyes to the many chemical phenomena that I had been unknowingly studying in the natural world around me. His passion for the subject was relatable, and I loved it! He taught us everything he could about chemistry during the school year … and I was hooked.

Directing my future

After high school, I knew that I wanted to earn a chemistry degree, even though I didn’t know exactly what I would do with it. I had the opportunity to work as an undergrad chemistry research assistant and as an assistant lab technician in the Soil, Water, and Forage Testing lab at Texas A&M University. These experiences made me realize that although I could work independently, I struggled at it. This seemed odd to me, since I tend to be introverted — but it was clear that I needed that human element to be satisfied.

So, with some help from my advisor, I redirected myself on a teaching track. While my advisor encouraged me to pursue a doctorate degree, it just didn’t seem like the best fit for my skills. My experiences in the research and testing labs had allowed me to reflect, and I realized I couldn’t see myself in that role day in and day out. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a Secondary Teacher Certification from Texas A&M University in 2004, and immediately headed to the classroom to start teaching.

From student to teacher

I began teaching chemistry at Harlingen High School South in January 2005 — my first professional role — but by February, I wanted to quit!

There were several reasons. First, I had a challenging time moving into my teaching role. I had always been the “helper” in classroom settings — but now I was trying to manage my own classroom for the first time. I was also surprised by how difficult it was for me to connect with the students. I had been an exemplary student. I was respectful and trustworthy, turning in my work on time, and never questioning the authority of my teachers. But in my role as teacher, I found that my students were challenging me, and did not want to do the work!

Quite frankly, I was confused, because I thought all students were like me. Turns out I was just a naïve 22-year-old who suddenly had a lot to learn. It was tough — but ultimately, I made it work, and I’ve been teaching ever since.

My dedication to the profession is deeply rooted in my upbringing. I am a first-generation American and my parents have always instilled in me the power of education. One of their reasons to emigrate here from Mexico was to find educational opportunities for their future children. My father completed the ‘primaria’ in Mexico (equivalent to upper elementary/middle school); he especially loved astronomy, and independently studied the subject on his own for as long as I can remember. My mom is very motivated to learn; however, she did not have the opportunity to go to school in her home country. I now see that it was their motivation to learn, combined with a lack of educational opportunities, that inspired me to become a teacher.

At any rate, I couldn’t just quit after three weeks on the job. So, onward I went!

Seeing myself in my students

I fit right in with most of the demographics that characterize life in the Rio Grande Valley. The majority of our students are Hispanic and come from a low socioeconomic level. There is also a large population of English Language Learners (ELL). Maybe I’m a little biased, but I love to work with the ELL population. We have similar backgrounds, and I’ve made a concerted effort to provide guidance as their teacher. For me, it has been a great opportunity to work with students who have similar backgrounds to my own.

Growing up, I was placed in the bilingual education program because my first language is Spanish. I did not always have a positive experience, especially when I was discouraged by counselors and other administration staff from taking honors or advanced courses. This happened to me twice, as I transitioned from elementary to middle school, and later from middle to high school.

I’d lived in California until 3rd grade, then in New Mexico until 10th grade, and finally moved with my family to Texas, where I did the rest of my schooling … but the discouragement from taking advanced classes was consistent in each setting. To this day, I find these memories hurtful, but I’m thankful for the individual teachers who pushed me to move to more challenging classes, despite the discouragement coming from others. Without their encouragement, I would have never unfolded my full potential.

I wanted to be like those teachers who pushed and encouraged me, and kept the door of opportunity open. I wanted to encourage my students to push themselves to their limits, and help them make and keep high expectations for themselves. And I wanted them to know that, regardless of the labels society put on them, they not only had access to educational opportunities, but they also had the power to break the cycle of poverty, and move past others’ stereotypes about them.

I recently encouraged an ELL student in my on-level chemistry course to move to the honors course. She did so, and is having great success. She volunteered at our annual science outreach program as a senior. She came up to me and shared that she was taking dual enrollment biology, and loved it. She also shared that she would be pursuing a career in the medical field.

I told her how proud and happy I was for her. Then she told me something I would never forget. “If it weren’t for you,” she told me, “I would have never taken dual enrollment biology or any other advanced courses. Thank you.” Comments like that are what makes it all worthwhile.

As teachers, we have the power to make a difference — by tearing down the barriers that often prevent capable students from learning chemistry and other challenging subjects. We can also help them by serving as role models, while maintaining high grade-level expectations for our students. I know this personally, thanks to the great guidance I got from my own chemistry teacher, Mr. Guerrero, and from my mentor during student teaching, Mrs. Jones.

Teaching is for me

My favorite part of teaching is providing opportunities to open the eyes of students to the world around them, and to make chemistry connections. I have spearheaded field trips for our students to local parks, environmental summits, zoos, and the beach. In each trip, we investigate biological and chemical factors that support or threaten our area. For instance, we studied the impact of aquatic health at Estero Llano Grande State Park. By learning about their own connection to chemistry, students can gain a sense of appreciation and pride for their home, not to mention insight into how their home is defined and supported by chemistry.

Although I am not originally from the Rio Grande Valley, I have lived here for over half of my life. I have fallen in love with the culture, the strong familial and community ties, and of course, the food. It’s safe to say that I’ll continue my chemistry teaching journey here in the great region of the Rio Grande Valley.

Students are my inspiration

Figure 2. The author accepting the 2022 H-E-B Excellence in Education Leadership Award. Photograph used with expressed permission. ©H-E-B

Recently, I was honored to receive the 2022 H-E-B Excellence in Education Leadership Award. But it almost didn’t happen.

Fortunately, it was my students who inspired me. For years, I had cheered my students as they competed in athletics, academics, speech, drama, and debate. I have seen them receive accolades and recognition for their hard work. But when I started working on my submittal for the H-E-B award, I hesitated to finish and submit it. I thought that I wasn’t good enough, and that there would be other teachers doing bigger and better things for their students.

Then I thought about my students. I’ve seen them be brave and fearless — and just go for it. So I got to work completing the application and submitted it. In March, H-E-B surprised me during my first period pre-AP class by letting me know I was one of the finalists. My students were so proud of me. They were excited and wished me luck in my finalist interview in April. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget.

You see, if it weren’t for my students, I would have never taken the chance. It’s pretty rewarding when things come full circle.

Photo credit:
(article cover) Bigsto