“I previously did work in community organizing while I was in college, and I feel that teaching allows me to stay true to those values and aspects that I enjoyed, like talking with and educating the community on important topics.” Stephanie Melendez used her experience and passion for advocacy to pave a path to teaching.
During college, Stephanie organized efforts on a range of issues from immigration reform to support for farmworkers. This work was most meaningful when she was able to connect with and talk to the community.
“As I got out of college, I knew organizing wasn’t where I wanted to be. But I did start asking, ‘Where can I impact communities that I’m most connected to?’ And I kept coming back to teaching.”
“There were times when I was younger when we weren’t talking about accessibility, social justice, and equity in school. Education feels like it is where I can talk about equity and help students answer big questions. And also help their families – it’s a community that goes into education.”
Finding a match with the NYU Teacher Residency
Stephanie looked for a teaching program that allowed her to stay close to her family in Florida, was in a community that she cared about, and taught a curriculum that centered on equity.
“Choosing the Teacher Residency was a mixture of personal things and looking at the courses deeply. I grew up in Florida and I have a lot of family here, and the residency offered a great option to be an hour from my mom, my uncles, and still have independence.”
“When I began to look deeper at the program location – West Palm Beach – there were a lot of Black and Brown folks. These are the people I grew up with and who I’m comfortable with.”
While West Palm Beach was a new community for Stephanie, her past experiences helped her build relationships with students and their families. “I grew up in Orlando, which is only about two and a half hours away. I have friends in the area, and knew of community-based organizations like Food Not Bombs and the Guatemalan Mayan Center, which focuses on indigenous people’s rights. All of this prior knowledge helped me support the people in my new community.”
The courses offered in the Teacher Residency aligned to Stephanie’s worldview and values. “I know a lot of programs talk about equity and accessibility, but I actually felt that folks had a really good understanding of it [in the Teacher Residency], and they helped us learn how to talk about it in our classrooms.”
Stephanie also found the mentorship remarkable. Even though she didn’t seek out the program because of the teacher mentor aspect, the feature ended up being one of the most important parts of the residency for her. “The mentorship aspect is amazing. Just being able to talk to actual teachers and have teachers in the classroom going through the course work and the motions every single day made such a difference. What a useful perspective to have!”
Understanding and supporting all students
“I know that it made an impact that I was given opportunities growing up; it was because people offered me moments of ‘why?’ and understanding of my circumstances. The educational experience that I had compared to my sister was very different, and it was just because someone gave us different opportunities. We came from the same family, but this is the equity piece.”
Stephanie used this story to underscore how the Teacher Residency taught her an even deeper level of what true equity looks like. “Students are really different. The way they process information is really different. And importantly, students are not empty buckets. We need to recognize the uniqueness and wonderfulness of every single student. Part of my commitment [to all students] is to make sure I understand all the other factors that make my students who they are, like what’s going on at home and what their interests are.”
In particular, Stephanie appreciated the focus on multilingual students and how NYU Steinhardt faculty helped the teacher residents reach all students, no matter their English proficiency. Stephanie felt that the courses prepared her to support students who were often underserved. “It is about shifting the power dynamics and acknowledging everything that students bring into the classroom.”
“Through the Teacher Residency, I learned that with understanding I can better support students with whatever they want to do in life. We [teachers] cannot be prescriptive. We should work with them and uplift them. I constantly ask: ‘What way can I be a stepping-stone to help my students find their own path?’”
Embracing the roles of learner and advocate
Naturally, Stephanie sees her teacher role as a learner and an advocate. Much of this perspective comes from her community organizing background.
“I see my role as a learner because I am new; I am a transplant. My role is to hear what the community is saying. As a teacher, I am here to support students and identify where I can help. It’s about listening and learning from my kids.”
Stephanie has found two populations of students where she knows she can make a special impact: multilingual students and LGBTQ students. For the former, she works to put as many assignments and handouts in both English and Spanish so students and their families feel comfortable, trusted, and seen.
“I’m also a sponsor for our school’s LGBTQ group because I identify as queer. We have meetings twice a month, and there’s another teacher who cosponsors the club with me. I didn’t have teachers growing up who looked like me or identified the same way as I did, so this matters to me.”
The experience of becoming a teacher has elevated Stephanie’s sense of justice. She’s committed now more than ever to making a difference and to helping her students find their own voices in the movement for equity.
“The world around us is changing, and people are demanding change – I am excited about how these changes will also ripple across the education sector and within my students. No longer is it okay to act as though we are a bubble with nothing penetrating us. These changes will have an impact, and I am excited for that.”