Immigrant Stories: Helping middle schoolers be successful
Intro: In October of this year, Autumn Rivera was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2022 by Colorado’s Department of Education. Since graduating from Colorado College 17 years ago, Autumn has been teaching science to mostly sixth graders at Glenwood Springs Middle school.
Rivera: I started teaching right out of college and have been teaching ever since. All in middle school. I’ve worked with kids in second grade all the way up to postgraduate, but I’m always drawn to the middle schoolers. So I’m glad to be here with them.
Gallacher: Middle schoolers are on the threshold of change, aren’t they?
Rivera: Yes. Becoming their own person and wanting to step out, but still needing a safe adult there to check in with and make sure everything’s OK. And so, getting that chance to build those relationships and get to know the students and watch them change from a scared, timid sixth grader to a more confident eighth grader is one of my favorite parts about teaching.
Gallacher: They come in to sixth grade just being the outsiders, don’t they?
Rivera: Yes. Worried about the lockers opening and scared of being bullied by the older kids or getting lost in the school. I remember having those fears, I vividly remember that. And so being able to be that teacher that’s there reminding them, “It’s going to get better, middle school isn’t always going to be this way. You’re going to get it figured out.” And letting them have those successes so that at the end of two weeks they can say, “Yeah, I can do it.”
Gallacher: Well, I want to know about that sixth grader that was you, that still lives inside of you and that you probably bring to class every day.
Rivera: There definitely is a middle schooler who lives strong inside of me still. I was painfully shy as child. It was hard for me to speak in front of people. I think I was a late bloomer throughout my entire life.
One thing I did know from a young age was that I loved science. And I knew that I loved to get to know my teachers. So building relationships with my teachers and being passionate about science was something that started at a young age and that I still depend on today as a teacher.
Gallacher: Who planted those seeds?
Rivera: I think my mother, who was also a middle school science teacher at first. She always loved to have us explore the world on our own. She provided situations for us to be outdoors and instilled that love of learning in me and my two brothers.
I grew up in the Eagle/Gypsum/Sweetwater area and went to the same school my dad went to and graduated from the same school he graduated from. I had a couple of teachers my dad had growing up. And so just having that sense of community was something I wanted when I went to college. That’s why I chose Colorado College. I wanted that sense of community when I worked with my own students. That’s why I chose to teach in Glenwood.
Gallacher: Tell me about your parents, two great teachers.
Rivera: My mom was a middle school teacher at first and then she had her three kids and took some time off. After kids, she taught basic skills and GED courses for Colorado Mountain College until she retired. My father did a lot of different jobs. He worked as a bison ranch manager, a railroad track patrolman and ended up working for the county at the Eagle airport and Road and Bridge. Both of them helped me nurture the ability to figure things out for myself. I definitely wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without that ability that they both instilled in me.
Gallacher: And you came from a multicultural family.
Rivera: Yes, I did. My mother is from Pittsburgh with French and British roots. My dad is from New Mexico. His family has lived in that area forever since it was part of Spain and then it was part of Mexico and then part of the United States. His family has lived in the same place the entire time and never moved.
Gallacher: They are indigenous people of that area.
Rivera: Exactly. He grew up in Canjilon, New Mexico, another small, tight-knit community that’s still there today.
Gallacher: I bet it’s hard for them as indigenous folks to be asked where they’re from.
Rivera: Yeah. It’s very hard. I think they would respond with, “Your people came to my people. We’ve just been here.”
Gallacher: I’m sure they have stories.
Rivera: Yes. It’s been great to hear them. I was very lucky right before I moved back to Glenwood Springs, my family did visit that area. We took my grandparents, and we were able to see the house where my grandfather was raised and hear his stories. It was a powerful experience.
Gallacher: Tell me a story.
Rivera: His home was very close to where Georgia O’Keeffe lived. When my grandfather was a boy, he and his brothers and sisters dug a well so they would have water. The well is still there. He showed us the art he had made from horseshoes that was still hanging on the walls of his old shed 50 years later.
Gallacher: What did that feel like for you?
Rivera: It was so powerful to meet family members I had never met before, and recognize myself in them, their smile, their sense of humor and think, “Oh yeah, I have that same thing. I have that same interaction.” That’s why I love working with my students here so much because they remind me of home. They remind me of that feeling, of that sense of humor, of that joking around that not everyone understands, but those are my people. I get it. And I love being able to interact with my students that way.
Gallacher: In this time of the pandemic and climate change I would imagine it’s harder to teach hope, which is one of those things that a good teacher tries to do, tries to keep that spirit of the child alive.
Rivera: Yes. One thing I really try to push in my classroom is that students don’t have to wait to make a change. I think so many times we tell our students, “In the future.”
Gallacher: “When you’re a grown up.”
Rivera: “Next year.” Yeah. “Next year you’re going to have to do this. In high school you get to do this. When you get to college.” It’s always preparing them for the future, and it’s not preparing them for the now. And I really want students to have an experience of making a change now, because if you’re always waiting for the future then you never actually get that experience to make a change. And so, a couple of years ago, right before and during the pandemic, my students were working on a project about the Colorado River and learning about how Glenwood Springs and activity in Glenwood Springs affects the Colorado River and its tributaries.
And we were getting to the end of the project. And a student brought to my attention that Sweetwater Lake was going up for sale. She thought our class should help raise money to buy it. I really wanted her to have the experience of “Let’s make a change.” And so I asked my students if they were interested, and they were on board.
The kids really got into it. And before I knew it, they’d organized a bake sale, designed shirts that we sold, and in the end they raised over $600 that we were able to donate. And it seems like such a small amount. The lake was for sale for over $7 million. $600 is not that much. But when it’s raised by a group of 11- and 12-year-olds, that’s significant. The students were very proud of their role in getting that property saved and purchased.
Gallacher: You weren’t just teaching science; you were teaching community organization.
Rivera: I want students to have their own opinion. I don’t want them to have my opinion. One thing the students didn’t know, I didn’t tell them until afterwards, is I grew up at Sweetwater Lake. That was my playground. That’s where I spent weekends hanging out with friends. It was only after we finished the project that they learned the lake was important to me as a kid. I think that made it even more special for them.
Gallacher: How did you adjust your way of teaching when this whole pandemic came down? Because teachers thrive on the human interaction with their students, and to have that taken away takes an essential element of teaching away.
Rivera: The workload was tremendous. We were suddenly being asked to do our job in a completely different manner. Some teachers were given overnight notice. And so, it was a lot to take on. I really admire all the teachers that have made it through. I think we thought last year would be the hardest year. Then we got to this year, and this year’s even harder. So we just keep trying to persevere and serve our students. But it has been a lot.
Gallacher: How do you stay buoyant? Because there must be days when you roll out and realize you’re going to have to go in and teach hope and be energized, and you just don’t have it.
Rivera: I’ve been lucky to have some amazing co-workers that are really supportive and a very aware administration that has helped. Just being able to say, “I see you,” to another teacher. “I see you right now working through your lunch period. I see you right now getting your kids to bed, then staying up another two or three hours getting work done. I see you with all your emails, trying to get that taken care of while you’re also trying to teach your classroom at the same time,” and just really recognizing all of us teachers and being together to support each other.
I think anytime I find myself getting really stressed out, I just stop and think I’m doing this to hang out with the kids. And today we’re just going to hang out. Today we’re going to play a game and laugh with each other, because right now we all need to laugh a little bit, because there’s a lot going on.
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