Connection. Culture. Community.
An early-career, bilingual teacher demonstrates the power of leading as your authentic self.
By Tasha McKinney
Photography by Anne Bannister & Taylor Harrison
They start realizing that, oh, wait, this language is similar to this language. That’s how they start bridging everything together … it just happens like magic. That’s what being bilingual is.”Uriel Iglesias, fourth-Grade bilingual teacher
Uriel Iglesias spent most of his childhood in Santa Rosalia de Cuevas, a small town in Chihuahua, Mexico. He describes his home town as a close-knit community where everyone knows each other. Uriel’s upbringing is an important part of how he connects to his fourth-grade students at Alma Brewer Strawn Elementary, also known as ABS. ABS is the first dual-language school in Lockhart ISD, with a student population that is 80% bilingual.
Uriel is able to connect with many of his students through their shared language, culture, and background. A 2018 study by the Education Trust found that when Latino teachers used their cultural insight to connect with Latino students with what they were learning, students were able to relate to these teachers as role models. In this study, having a teacher who looked like them helped empower students and challenge negative stereotypes.
As a bilingual educator, Uriel speaks to the beauty of unearthing how much his students already know in their native language and helping them make connections to the language they are learning. “When you start teaching content in their second language and they start realizing that, oh, wait, this language is similar to this language. That’s how they start bridging everything together … In the end, it just happens like magic. That’s what being bilingual is.”
Uriel’s ability to show up as his authentic self in the classroom helps him build strong connections with his students. “That’s probably my favorite part about teaching, bringing my own personality, my own identity, my own culture, my traditions. Bringing that into my classroom allows me to connect to my students more. With that already in place, that’s how I gain their trust.”
For Uriel, part of bringing his personality to teaching includes bringing his joy and humor. His classroom is often filled with smiling faces and laughter. Students are highly engaged in lessons and activities, as Uriel makes learning interactive and personalized. “That’s what I want to bring together,” Uriel says. “I want to bring happiness and education together.”
Uriel’s passion for teaching is fueled by those “light bulb moments” for his students. He sees himself in his students, and knows his story can be a powerful symbol and inspiration to them. “Seeing all those connections that I make with my students, I’m like, ‘I was there one day. I was sitting in that same chair that you were and now you have that same desire that I once had.’ That makes me even more passionate. It brings me joy.”
Uriel Iglesias makes learning interactive and personalized in his fourth-grade bilingual classroom.
Uriel’s journey to becoming an educator began in high school, where he helped his peers with their schoolwork. That’s when Uriel realized teaching was something he was skilled at and enjoyed.
“I’ve always been geared towards working with children, helping out my community, and this is where I landed.”
Uriel’s parents supported his academic goals and achievements. While their own formal education ended after high school they wanted all college and career possibilities to be available to their children. Uriel remembers the day he learned he would graduate as valedictorian of the Sam Houston Math, Science, and Technology Center in Houston.
“They did a special ceremony at my high school. You had to pop a balloon with a little paper inside, and it would tell you your rank and your GPA. That day was very emotional because that’s when I found out that I was valedictorian. It was a very special moment to know that hard work pays off.”
As a first-generation college student, Uriel’s journey to becoming a teacher included some challenges and uncertainties, but the support of his family, even from afar, helped drive him forward. “My sisters, they would text me, ‘Are you okay? How are you doing?’” said Uriel. “All that support, all that love that I was getting from my family, I knew they were proud of me.”
Uriel was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin College of Education, where he learned the power of collaboration and peer-to-peer support. “That’s something that I was able to bring into the teaching field because this is what it’s all about, connecting with your teammates, your admin, and everyone around you.”
Uriel was in his sophomore year at UT when he received the Charles Butt Scholarship for Aspiring Teachers. He remembers the moment as one of tears, excitement, and joy. “Just hearing how excited my parents were, it’s very motivational to me … It makes me want to keep going forward.”
Now as a teacher, Uriel recognizes the Charles Butt Scholar mentorship program as one of his most valuable scholarship resources. Uriel’s mentor is Mark Estrada, superintendent of Lockhart ISD. The mentorship connection between Uriel and Mark branched into a friendship, a space where they learn from each other and support each other’s careers but also grab food and share life updates.
(Left) Uriel Iglesias poses with his sisters and parents. Family is one of his core values. (Center) When Uriel graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with his bachelor’s in education, he proudly carried the Mexico flag across the stage. (Right) Mark Estrada, the superintendent of Lockhart ISD, became Uriel Iglesias’ mentor through the Charles Butt Scholarship mentor program.
When Uriel walked on the UT graduation stage with the Mexican flag, the first thing he did was send the video to Mark. “… [Mark] didn’t waste any second,” Uriel said. “He was like, ‘Are you ready to work for me?’ and I’m like, ‘You know what? Let me process this a little bit. I just graduated.’ The thing was that I was ready to go back to Houston.”
Mark invited Uriel to Alma Brewer Strawn Elementary in Lockhart to tour the campus and meet the team. It didn’t take long for Uriel to decide ABS is where he wanted to work. “I realized that home was actually here instead of over there in Houston,” Uriel says. “This is where I find my peace, where I find my happiness, and all thanks to that connection that I had with Mr. Estrada.”
Watch the watch video below to hear more from Mark and Uriel on the value of mentorship for individuals and the education system.
He’s going to advocate for his students, he’s going to advocate for his colleagues. I think that more early career teachers need to feel confident with that voice.”Mark Estrada, superintendent of lockhart ISD
Growing in skill and passion
Shortly after visiting campus, Uriel started teaching in a fourth-grade dual-language classroom at ABS. Like many new teachers, Uriel was nervous about his first year in the classroom. However, his love of teaching, combined with support from Mark and his campus leaders, helped Uriel find early success as a teacher.
“It was great to see him mature from a first-year teacher who was trying to figure out the space and the environment and what it means to be a professional and what it means to be a teacher, and grow into a campus leader. I’m just very proud of him,” Mark says. “He takes initiative, and he’s always trying to figure out new ways to engage his students.”
ABS is at the heart of the community. Families eat lunch with their students and use the space as a community gathering hub. Uriel home visits his students’ residence, allowing him to collaborate with families and build stronger relationships.
Uriel says, “Being part of this community is amazing because you have parents from all over the world who want to share with you their stories, and they’re literally giving you a part of their lives by having their students be in your classroom.”
Uriel talks about the importance of collaboration, listening to the advice of other teachers, and trying out different strategies. While Uriel is learning from his colleagues and faculty, they are also learning from him. Mark shares that listening to teacher voice is a critical aspect of creating a positive school environment and in turn increases teacher retention.
“[Uriel] has that trait to where he is going to voice his opinion, he’s going to advocate for his students, he’s going to advocate for his colleagues,” says Mark. “I think more early career teachers need to feel confident with that voice. We need that voice.”
Mark is enjoying watching Uriel grow his technical skills as a teacher and pursue his passion. “He hasn’t lost his grand vision of what is possible for kids. He believes like I believe that great things are possible for every kid, and I’m confident that in 20 years, he’s still going to have that same passion and commitment to kids.”
For Uriel, that passion is what drives him every day. “This type of job, for me, is one where I can wake up in the morning and say, “I’m ready to go to work. Let’s do it.” That’s something I’ve always wanted in my life. I’ve always told myself I want to do something that whenever I wake up in the morning, I want to have a smile on my face.”