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by Michelle Sandoval Villegas, 2020 Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year

Chaos. Mass shootings. Pandemic. Fear. Anxiety. In the past school year, teachers have faced the hardest academic year in our city, and we share the same feelings with many educators all across the state of Texas, as well as the nation at the moment. On Aug. 3, 2019, before beginning the school year for most of our districts, our beautiful city of El Paso had a mass shooting at a local Wal-Mart. Today, we face a pandemic in our world. Educators across our state and this country are in their homes worried about their students. Educators all around the world, in fact, are dealing with creating a school culture in their institutions or abroad where all students feel safe, loved, valued and important. Educators who walk into classrooms every single day are the “champions” for students who believe in one thing: All students will be successful with high expectations and most importantly … valued!

Now, this is no easy task. This takes work, open-mindedness, innovation and creativity. Building a school culture that fits the needs of your students in your neighborhoods is crucial and also fits the needs of our current situation facing a pandemic.

In our Northeast El Paso neighborhood, 85% of our students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and more than 55% are labeled as at-risk. In coalition with a group of amazing educators at our campus, Parkland Pre-Engineering Middle School, and a very culture driven principal, Dr. Angela Reyna, we created our mantra inspired by author Jimmy Casas’ book, “Culturize”: “Every student. Every day. Whatever it takes. It starts with US.”

We, in fact, do whatever it takes. That means we walk our hallways blasting hip-hop music, expecting ALL students to get to class on time with innovative tardy sweeps. Every single teacher stands in the hallway. Dr. Reyna walks the halls with a meme fat-head cut-out while telling the 1,400 students over the intercom, “I am so proud of you, we only had three tardies! Keep up the good work!” All the while, staff fist bump and congratulate students.

Consistency and culture are key. While creating a school culture on our campus that is relevant to our students, we also hold high expectations. Students in this day in age respond to relevance. What is relevant to them? Do we have their attention? Can we keep their attention all day? Education is not the same as it was 10-15 years ago. Our world is evolving every day, and as educators and leaders we must evolve along with it. Most importantly, we must have the same vision walking into our campuses daily for the sake of our students. As educational author and leader Todd Nesloney says, “Kids deserve it.” They deserve every ounce of us in their education and they deserve a team of champions that will create a culture in their school for their continued success.

Today, our students, teachers, support staff, administrators, leaders and parents are all dealing with a pandemic. This is something I never thought I would see happen: school closures, extended spring breaks and teaching abroad that has never been piloted before. Now, students face fear. Their parents face fear. In the face of adversity, the biggest factor of school culture is facing adversity head-on and becoming resilient. We must focus on the students at home wondering if they can go back to school for free breakfast and lunch. We worry if they have access to materials they need to continue to learn. We must model to these children that the culture we build in schools can be carried into society: Be innovative, be loving, be compassionate, dream big and never stop learning. This pandemic is new and scary for most children, but together as educators we can create a school culture in the face of adversity even from afar.

Remember, as educators we vowed one thing: All students will be successful, loving human beings. Right now our school culture as a state and country is simple with one shared vision: We will overcome, and we will continue learning.

I always tell my students to never give up no matter what happens, because in the end when you get knocked down once, you get back up 10 more times. Let us educators use the idea of school culture to change the outlook on the situation that we face and will continue to face in the near future to: Fight. Learn. Adapt. Love. Overcome.

Together we can create school culture from a distance, because as all educators may say, “We never stop learning.”