As soon as you step into room 236, a vibrant yet comforting energy envelopes you. Colorful student posters, the ones with admirable yet meager attempts at art, line the wall and students can always be heard passionately singing along to a Shakira song. This unique environment is typical of a class taught by Elizabeth Perez, a Spanish teacher new to Garfield this year.
Perez has a kind smile and welcoming energy that draws you in from the first time you meet her. She’s quick to share about her life: how she’s an avid soccer fan, currently rooting for Cruz Azul and Mexico in the world cup, how her favorite food is ceviche and even how she’s going to get married in 2020. However, the more you get to know her, the more you uncover her beautiful and inspiring story.
She grew up in the small town of Grandview, Washington, home to about 10,000 people. It was a town that shaped her despite its challenges.
“In that area of Yakima there’s high crime rates and a high dropout rate.” said Perez.
While in high school, she had a teacher named Señor Rodriguez who made an impact on her life.
“I had torn my ACL and I was on crutches for a while, and he would go to my first period class and drop breakfast off or a sandwich so I could eat for the day” said Perez.
Through hard work and perseverance, alongside the support of teachers like Rodriguez, Perez moved to Seattle to pursue her goal of receiving a higher education.
“I am the first in my family to have graduated from a college and I received two masters degrees,” said Perez.
While completing her Hispanic masters studies program at UW, Perez had to teach intro level classes to freshman and sophomores. A moment from one of these classes made her realize teaching was the career path she wanted to follow.
“I had a student tell me at UW that my teaching changed her life. When she told me that … I had no words to say, like how can my teaching change your life? I don’t know what I did,” said Perez.
That moment, combined with the impact of a strong role model, solidified Perez’s decision to become a teacher. She decided to pursue Spanish because of her cultural background as a Mexican-American, but also because of the value teaching Spanish holds.
“The idea that I can teach a non-dominant language to my students to me is a form of social justice. It’s showing my students that they can learn a language but they can also change their perspective or be challenged by non-dominant perspectives through a language,” said Perez.
However, for Perez, the importance of teaching goes beyond the subject matter. It expands beyond the confines of learning information and into supporting the well beings of individuals through being honest and emotionally open.
“Personally I’ve been able to be more vulnerable after I experienced the loss of my brother who was 22 years old and not even two months ago I lost my cousin who was 18,” said Perez. “All of these life experiences make me feel the need to always support the youth and be there as much as possible because education is important, but their lives are also important. Your lives are important, especially now we find ourselves in a difficult time in our nation and there’s that need to have teachers who are going to go the extra mile, who are also going to care about the whole individual.”
Part of caring about the entire individual for Per ez is understanding students’ backgrounds and being able to support them in an equitable way.
“It’s so important [to bring social justice into the classroom] because every single student in the classroom has a story and it’s how you connect and bring their stories into the classroom that really matters,” said Perez. “Once you start validating the stories you bring from home those are the moments you’re being equitable and show them you not only value them as a student in the classroom but you value their stories and their languages too. That’s social justice education at work.”
If you’re lucky enough to get Perez as a teacher, you are in store for an engaging classroom environment, personalized care and best of all having your day brightened, without fail, by a kind and warm smile.