The path Dr. Victor Rios had set for himself as a junior in high school looked very different from where he is now. After dropping out of school multiple times, Rios did not see himself as someone he could believe in. But someone else did – Mrs. Russ.
“She relentlessly would approach me, check in on me, smile, see how I was doing. If I wasn’t at school for weeks at a time, she’d go knock on my door at the house.” Rios said. “My mom didn’t speak any English, so it was an interesting conversation they had. She was just relentless at reaching out to students, at making sure they were okay, and at providing them resources.”
Rios shares more about Mrs. Russ and how she tricked him into believing in himself simply by modeling what it looked like to believe in him. Today Rios’ work focuses on students like he was and changing society’s perspective on them. Often referred to as “at-risk students,” Rios’ research educates on the promise these students hold. He refers to them as “at-promise students.” Rios also lifts the voices of other people of color to share their experiences in the public school system, such as Juan who is sitting next to him during this interview.
Dr. Victor Rios speaking:
The one teacher for me was Mrs. Russ. And Mrs. Russ was the teacher, when I was in ninth grade and 10th grade, I dropped out; my first semester of ninth grade, my first semester of 10th grade. So, I barely saw her. But she relentlessly would approach me, check in on me, smile, see how I was doing. If I wasn’t at school for weeks at a time, she’d go knock on my door at the house.
My mom didn’t speak any English, so it was an interesting conversation they had. She was just relentless at reaching out to students and making sure they were okay and at providing them resources. I didn’t appreciate that as a student. So ninth grade, 10th grade, I actually rejected her a lot. But 11th grade is when I started to need support.
At least that’s how I felt, that I was ready to change. But I felt like I had no adult, no one in my life. And I remembered Mrs. Russ. So I ran over there to school to look for her, even though I hadn’t been in school these last couple of years. And she was there waiting for me patiently.
Two years later, “Victor, I’m here for you. If you’re ready to do the work, I’ll be here for you. But I need you to carry yourself. I care for you, Victor, but I can’t carry you.” And just to hear that from her, like, I got to take responsibility for my actions. Like, this lady’s not going to carry me.
I got to carry myself. And she goes, “You’re going to carry your family and you’re going to carry your community, and you’re powerful enough to do that, Victor. And not only are you going to catch up on your credits and graduate high school, you’re going to college.” And I was like, “No, I’m not. I’m going to be a mechanic.”
“No, you’re going to college because you have a bigger mission in life. And that mission and purpose is to help your family and to help your community.” That lady gave me instructions and I followed her instructions. So let’s not be afraid to give our children a vision for the future, to give our students instructions on life, to provide them opportunities for understanding a bigger world than they’ve been raised in.
Because when an educator knows their purpose, it’s not the money, it’s not the drama, it’s not the stress, it’s not the bureaucracy. It’s them and their students on a stage of life playing out a beautiful story of success and of someone teaching and reaching someone else.
And when we do that as educators, that’s when we’re at our best. That’s when we are life savers. And that’s what Mrs. Russ did for me.
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