Interview with Educator and Teacher Mentor, Viviana Montoya-Hernandez Torres

For the inaugural interview, I interviewed a model educator who has a contagious love of education. She inspires others to be intentional with their work and to always approach teaching from a place of love. I was lucky to work with Viviana as a mentor last summer and am grateful for the work she is doing and continuing to inspire.

Viviana Montoya-Hernandez Torres first began her work in education as a tutor and TA for summer programs throughout high school. She has since entered a career in education, teaching Social Studies for 9 years at Monta Vista High School, serving 10 years as the Site Director for the East Palo Alto and Menlo Park campuses of the educational outreach summer program, Aim High (of which she is herself an alum!), and working 3 years as a teacher mentor. This job position her in a role that serves new teachers completing BTSA to clear their credentials, supporting veteran teachers new to the district, and planning and hosting Professional Development for teachers throughout the district.

What inspired you to pursue the work you are doing in education? 

There are two factors that helped me to decide to pursue education as a profession. The first is that, despite growing up in a two-parent household and living at the same address for my entire childhood, things at home were difficult. My parents, in their effort to raise four children with very little resources did not often have the funds, energy, or knowledge to address all of our needs. As a result, I was unhappy, insecure, and very lonely. School became the place where I could grow and thrive. Teachers supported and nurtured my interests and strengths, built up my self-esteem and provided stability and safety. I want to be able to help provide that for other students.

The second factor that influenced my desire specifically to work at the high school level has to do with my high school experience. Being poor and a minority at a school with a student population that was majority white and affluent provided many social and academic challenges for me. I had a hard time finding friends, I had a hard time navigating the school culture and understanding how to overcome barriers in that culture (such as over-riding course recommendations from a teacher), and generally struggled to meet the academic expectations.

This was especially true in my freshman year as I transitioned from an under-resourced school to being in classes where I was competing with students who had private tutoring and college-educated parents to help them with the homework. Despite those challenges, the few teachers that I had who took an interest in me, saw my potential, and pushed me to take risks helped me to learn everything that I possibly could and to take risks that would improve my skills to the point where I had not only caught up to my peers by graduation, but also had won some awards.

Without having dedicated teachers who were personally invested in my success, I would not have had the academic success I did. I believe that education is one of the few tools that we have to even the playing field for children growing up in poverty and for children of color. High school is a crucial time. I want to dedicate my skills and time to supporting equity in schools and to be a champion for students who need it, the way my teachers were for me.

What is the greatest challenge you have encountered in your own education or work, and how did you overcome it?

I think that the greatest challenge that I encountered in my work as an educator actually came during my credential program. I was frustrated by the fact that many students in my cohort would say things that were judgmental, classist , racist, or just coming from a place of immense privilege and most professors would not respond, question, or intervene. To be one of 3 latinos in the class and hear people say things about how Mexican children won’t do homework or how Mexican parents can’t make education a priority and to know that literally if I didn’t say anything, no one else would, was infuriating and hurtful. I had classmates and professors ask me to calm down when I responded because I was taking it too personally. As a result, I became withdrawn, I participated in class less, and I arrived to classes late so as not to have to interact with anybody. My university supervisor physically cornered me in front of my whole class, accused me of not being committed to the program, questioned my desire to teach, and accused me of being a “ringleader” by encouraging the 2 other students in my class (the only other 2 latinos) to also disengage. Through my tears, I told him that the program was not set up to address issues of equity and race, that I felt silenced and marginalized by the outright racist things people said in class and directly to me, and that he clearly knew nothing about my commitment to teaching. I invited him to interview my students, talk to my cooperating teacher, read my lesson plans and reflection journals and then see if he came to the same conclusion. When he got over his shock, he offered to connect me with a Spanish professor on campus to talk about my issues. I pointed out to him that a Spanish professor would have very little contextual knowledge of the credential program, would not be able to do anything to improve the credential program, and that the issues were not mine, but rather were issues of the culture of the school and program.

The way that I dealt with those feelings, knowing that I would encounter them again in education, was to connect with other educators of color in order to find a place where I felt understood and heard. I needed people in my life that I could process my feelings and experiences with where I knew I wouldn’t be judged. Then I started reading every resource I could find on multicultural education, equity in teaching, and race and teaching. I built up a knowledge base of statistics, strategies, and concepts that I could use to intelligently discuss issues of racism even if no one else in the room was willing to. Over time, I have also made an effort to seek out mentors who are more experienced than I am in these issues. I call on them when I find an issue I don’t know how to handle or when I realized I have made an error based on my own misunderstandings or failures to check my own privileges.

Based on your experiences both mentoring new teachers and being a teacher yourself, what do you see as some of the greatest challenges experienced by new teachers?

I think the greatest challenge experienced by new teachers is the sheer volume of work that is required to teach. It is physically, intellectually, and emotionally exhausting. Because teaching requires that we make literally thousands of decisions in a day, it is completely overwhelming to reflect on our practice. Which of the thousands of decisions do I have time to evaluate? How can I ever get better at lesson planning when I’m struggling with classroom management? How can I get better at classroom management when I don’t know much about my students? How can I learn more about my students when there are so many of them? New teachers are always running, but rarely feel like they’re moving forward.

Theses challenges of teaching are further compounded for new teachers by the fact that the newest and least experienced teachers are often given the most complex and difficult assignments. They have proportionately more special education students in their classrooms, they are more likely to teach EL [English Language Learner] classes and they usually are the ones who have to teach read 180 and algebra 1 for students who have already failed it. They’re also more likely to have to share classrooms and have more courses to prepare for. To add that level of complexity is unfair to new teachers and unfair to students. Because it’s more challenging, more experienced teachers don’t want to teach it and as a result, new teachers eager for employment get placed there.

I always encourage new teachers to think about the long view. In other words, what do you want to know and be able to do by your fifth year of teaching? You can’t be that person now, but you can practice one of those skills. Come up with just ONE great lesson plan per unit, ONE great project per year and in 5 years, you’ll have a fantastic curriculum built up.

What advice would you give to new teachers who are struggling to find their groove in their classrooms?

The two best pieces of advice I would provide to teachers who are struggling to find their groove are: find your people and learn to prioritize.

One of the challenges of teaching is the fact that you may feel like you’re the only one struggling or like you’re doing a worse job than everyone else. You need to find positive, supportive colleagues who will help you to reflect on your challenges, celebrate your successes, share resources and information, and generally make you feel less alone. Who are the people that will make photocopies for you when you are out sick, who will give you a piece of chocolate from their stash when you’re having a bad day, who will let you use their stellar TA to cut down your workload? Beware of getting sucked into groups that gossip or spend all of their time complaining, they may seem friendly and comforting at first, but it can become a negative energy vortex. Also, remember that “your people” may not necessarily be in your department.

The other thing that teachers can do – particularly when they’re feeling overwhelmed – is to focus on prioritizing. You only have so many hours after the school day is over. What are the 1 or 2 things you absolutely need to get done tomorrow? You only have 2 hours to grade on a weekend (because you NEED work-life balance and self-care), what 1 or 2 assignments are going to give your students the most useful information about how they’re doing and how to improve? When you are struggling with classroom management, think about the 1 or 2 skills or behaviors that are essential for your kids to have first? Create routines and a lesson plan around those skills and then build on them only once they’ve been mastered. It is literally impossible to do all of the things that teachers are supposed to do, so think carefully about what’s most important and what’s most useful, invest time and effort into those things and forgive yourself for the rest. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to other people such as your BTSA coach, course-alike lead, or department chair about what those priorities should be.

What is the most important lesson that your students have taught you? 

The most important lesson that students have taught me is that I need to be 100% real. The more they know about me, the more they trust me, the more they share about themselves, the more they care about learning, the more they believe I care about them. When I’m trying to be in control of everything, trying to pretend I know all the answers, trying to appear more “together” than I actually am, kids have called me out for it and taken advantage of it. I lose all credibility, respect, and authority the second kids know I’m faking something. For this reason, I tell them when I’m having a hard day because I had a disagreement with a loved one or am feeling sick, I find ways to weave in stories about my mistakes and failures into lessons and activities, I tell kids the truth when they ask a question I don’t know the answer to, and sometimes, I tell them stories about my life just because it reveals something about me that they can relate to. I do these things intentionally and strategically. I plan them to make sure they don’t take too much time, and I never share any details that would be inappropriate or too personal, but I can’t expect kids to be real with me if I’m not real with them. It’s also really changed how I go through life. It’s impossible to hide my shortcomings. I need to name them, address them head on.

Which voices in education–e.g. teachers you have had, thought leaders, or any other people you have interacted with –have most impacted you and affected your approach to the work you do? What did they teach you? 

Reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed literally changed my life. I knew that my experience as a person of color in the education system were hard, I didn’t realize that it was systemic rather than just personal, nor did I realize that there are ways to address it, until I read the book. I have also been deeply affected by educational research grounded in critical race theory. CRT provided a new lens by which to see the world and gave me the language to be able to deconstruct and discuss systemic problems in schools that we might address at the classroom level. As a history teacher, I changed aspects of my curriculum and teaching philosophy as a result of the ideas in Beyond Heroes and Holidays and after reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of America. In terms of overall pedagogy, I have most recently been influenced by ideas of Growth Mindset and effective effort as way to maintain rigor while helping students to access it. In terms of issues of justice and society overall, I also recommend Whistling Vivaldi, The New Jim Crow, and Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

If you could tell education policymakers any one thing, based on your experiences being on the “front lines” of the classroom, what would you share with them? 

Teachers want to be better at their jobs. They want to increase equity in their classrooms and schools. They are so deeply invested in their schools and communities. However, there is very little training or knowledge in how to do most of those things. Educators in general have very little knowledge or experience in how to talk about race or poverty, how to look for examples of systemic inequity in their contexts, and what possible solutions are available.

Educational leaders at the site and district level go through administrative credential programs that provide very little training regarding being good managers, how to increase emotional intelligence, or how to build cultural knowledge specific to the school’s community. Teachers cannot be coached by administrators who also are missing the skills they need to make systemic change.

I would also point out that education dollars are often allocated without any thought to what teachers and schools actually need. Money for laptops is great, but will teachers have in-depth training with coaching over time in how to use those laptops as education tools rather than just replacing paper? Money for a new staff room is nice, but would the teachers rather have time together to look at student work? Money for a new equity coach is helpful, but have those coaches been properly trained in best practices for both classroom equity and teacher coaching for long-term change? Do they have access to the data necessary to identify the greatest problems? Essentially, schools need more money, but that money needs to be allocated according to the specific needs of the communities being served and with an eye to the overarching needs and goals of the community.

Which voices, if any, did you not hear or not have access to growing up that you think might have fundamentally changed your experiences with school and beyond? How so? 

I’m very lucky in the fact that my K-8 elementary school was run by feminist, radical nuns. Some of my most influential teachers were Spanish-speaking Latinas who taught us about Oscar Romero and Rigoberta Menchu. They took us to art galleries to learn about the plight of the farmworkers and the dangers of pesticides. They took us out to the community to cook at homeless shelters, provide comfort for the elderly, and raise money for children suffering in other countries. As a result of all this, from a very early age, I found myself reflected in my school community and curriculum, I felt not only empowered but also responsible for making the world a better place for myself and others, and I saw myself a global citizen with humanity equal to those in other parts of the world (as opposed to the “America first” mentality). I think much of my struggle in high school and college is that all of those ideas and voices were gone. There was no more critical analysis of the treatment of the poor and oppressed, no more heroes fighting for the powerless, no more people of color to celebrate. The fact that I felt invisible and that my classmates saw me as (and treated me like) a caricature built from the media and racist stereotypes is likely a result of the limited, traditional, and frankly, white supremacist, curriculum that is prevalent in most schools.

We need more diversity in the teacher and administrative work forces. We need white teachers to be allies to people of color. We need all curriculum to be reflective of the changing and complex world that we live in. For example, let’s teach students about the legacies of colonialism instead of teaching Western civilization. Let’s teach an environmental science class where students learn about who has water rights and why, alongside learning the dangers of water pollution. Let’s have students take literature classes where they have choices about what novels they read based on their own interests and identity exploration, ensuring that there are authors of many different backgrounds represented. Let’s realize that ethnic studies is and should be part of social studies. It needs to come from educators because people in power are not likely to champion systems that will change that power. It’s why we’ve had so little change in education in the last 100 years.

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