Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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A Lesson in Modeling Authenticity

HEB Winner Q&A

This spring, 16-year teaching veteran Morgan Castillo, an ATPE member and fifth grade science teacher at Woodgate Intermediate School in Midway (12) ISD, was named a recipient of the prestigious H-E-B Excellence in Education Award. She spoke to ATPE News about the importance of authenticity, passion, and daring to try new things.

What made you want to be an educator?
I never planned on becoming a teacher. I went to Baylor to become a missionary. While I was there, I became involved with a local nonprofit that works with the poor and marginalized of the community and the world. After an internship, I decided I wanted to further invest in underserved communities. It was time to get a job with steady income, and my mom sent me a newspaper ad for the Dallas ISD Alternative Certification Program, and I decided to go for it! They placed me in a Spanish position at F.D. Roosevelt High School.

What has kept me in the education profession is my own educational experience in Texas public schools. I grew up in Garland ISD and experienced some outstanding educators. For example, my middle school science teacher, Ms. Borland, brought in Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, to speak to us. She also involved us in Robert Ballard’s JASON Project, where we video-conferenced with actual scientists halfway across the world. (This was pre-internet, so videoconferencing was state-of-the-art, and Robert Ballard had just discovered the Titanic wreck.) Ms. Borland is just one example of so many teachers who went above and beyond to provide experiences for students. These teachers set the minimum standard for me as an educator. So, shouldn’t my students have at least the same experiences, if not better? I really take to heart that every student deserves passionate, creative-driven teachers.

What is your favorite part of your job?
Our world is fascinating, and my favorite part about my job is that I further develop students’ natural curiosity and appreciation for how amazing of a world we live in! Students have designed and conducted their own experiments using live crayfish and presented their research to an audience at a major university. I’ve brought in a rocket engineer from SpaceX. Students have handled fossils that are millions of years old and wondered about our prehistoric world. A class also worked with a local municipality to educate the public about the importance of pollution-free stormwater runoff. These opportunities inspire and empower students to take learning further. As they make personal connections, unplanned student-initiated opportunities arise. One year, a student volunteered to bring to class chickens from home while learning about bird beaks and feet. Another time, we had an impromptu show-and-tell of personal rock collections. Creating memorable experiences for your students inspires them to extend their learning.

What advice would you give to other educators?
Don’t model perfection for your students; model authenticity. Only when we acknowledge and embrace our true selves—flaws and all—can we best serve our students by developing relationships and giving them the gifts of worthiness and acceptance.

The fear of failure often paralyzes a teacher; we are scared to fail because our end product isn’t an item on a store shelf, it’s a human life. However, we owe it to our students to take risks because playing it safe serves no one. When teachers step out on faith and embrace the likelihood of failure, students will gain so much more beyond the content knowledge, thus outweighing any negatives. Students rarely remember that specific lesson you spent hours perfecting and preparing, but they forever recall the permission you gave yourself to be authentic in front of them.

Be vulnerable with your passions and dreams! For me, I love science. I wear crazy science socks and science shoes for good luck on test days. I wear mammoth jewelry and bring in my rock and fossil collections. I’ve always wanted to share that love with young people, but it wasn’t until I took the leap and switched to teaching science that it finally happened. In my class when we study volcanoes, I am literally jumping with excitement as we watch the lava flow on screen. When students say, “Wow, you really like volcanoes,” my response is, “Of course! When I grow up, I want to be a volcanologist!” My eyes are big, my excitement authentic. My students may not share my passion, but all students can connect to having a passion. When they see your passion, they gain confidence to share their passions with you.

In a fast-changing world, we must be daring enough to try new things to prepare our students for a future of navigating a constantly changing environment. Teachers should attempt challenging lessons, apply for dream training opportunities, or explore new content. Saying yes to these risks has not only made me a better teacher, but has made me a better leader, servant, and model for my students and those around me. Students who entered my room disliking science are now considering future careers in the field. Introverts have come out of their shells. Our learning and personal growth far exceeded my expectations. Potential failures are another opportunity to grow and saying yes to vulnerability actually is a sign of great strength.

Why is it important for educators to embrace leadership roles?
The perception of public schools isn’t always great. There are so many charts and graphs that show scary statistics about public schools. That may be all that someone outside of the education profession sees, when in reality, great things are happening in Texas public schools. From meeting the social and emotional needs of children to providing meals, we’re going so much further than memorizing facts. We are developing the whole child and creating lifelong learners.

Every educator has amazing stories to tell about struggles, about successes, and about that kid who overcame some huge hurdle to really become successful or even some real struggles that we face. There is so much power in our stories as educators. The more personal stories our legislators and policymakers can connect with, the better the decisions they are going to make, not just for educators, but also for Texas public education and ultimately for students. Teachers should be proud of the work they are doing and not be afraid to share their experiences. It’s not boastful or bragging to share the great things happening in your classroom or school. It’s our responsibility as educators to make sure that our community truly understands the depth and extent to which we go to care for children.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced this year, and how did you overcome them?
Maintaining relationships with my students in a virtual environment was very challenging. Relationships keep students coming back—it’s the key to buy-in—but I could no longer see them every day. One of the ways I overcame this hurdle was by creating Castillo’s Cabinet. I selected a handful of students of various backgrounds and abilities to help gather input and make decisions for running my virtual classroom. We met twice a week and discussed likes and dislikes about the tools I was using to deliver instruction. I used their opinions and ideas to make it more engaging.

Managing work-life balance was quite challenging. Teaching became a round-the-clock position, and I was also guiding my two young children through their lessons. Each time I tried to create a structure or a schedule, something else would interfere, so I learned to just be flexible and give myself grace.

How has the pandemic changed your preparation and approach to teaching?
I plan on using the Castillo Cabinet for the upcoming school year, no matter the method of instructional delivery. I enjoyed their [students’] feedback, and they felt like their voice mattered, which it did. In a traditional classroom, a teacher can quickly scan the room to identify struggling students. The pandemic made it much more difficult to identify those students. I couldn’t catch and help the struggling students in the middle of the learning process. I had to wait for them to submit something. So, I’m having to find new tools and methods of teaching to identify those needs before a student gives up.

One of the things that kept me up at night was worrying about my students who do not have the best home life. School was their safe zone, where they could develop healthy relationships with adults and children their own age. The pandemic suddenly took all of that away from them. However, thanks to strong campus leadership, my school was proactive from the beginning about identifying those students and working together (teachers, administrators, support staff) to reach out and ensure their safety and well-being. That was one of the great things that happened as a result of the pandemic: I feel so much closer to my Woodgate family. Our bonds are tighter. We depended on each other and really went all out for our school community.

What do you envision the biggest challenges educators will face this year?
Coming up with new ways to create quality relationships with students while keeping them healthy and safe during a year full of unknowns. Right now, we don’t know what to prepare for, so we have to prepare for every scenario. In the midst of the uncertainty, we have to continue to be a positive role model for our students. While we hope that students have had good social interactions during the last several months, many will be returning with high anxiety, fear, and other experiences. All of this means that social-emotional learning must be at the heart of what educators do each day, virtually or face-to-face.

How do you define and measure success for yourself and your students?
The concept of success cannot merely be limited to numerical scores on multiple-choice standardized tests. While these numbers can offer valuable data when comparing students, campuses, and districts, they do not complete the concept of success in education. True success for myself and my students is the creation and sustaining of an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

I measure this desire for more learning and knowledge by the actions of my students. Are they asking questions? What kind of questions are they asking? Are they offering their own ideas or solutions? Are they making connections with the content outside the boundaries of the classroom by bringing in items or telling stories from home? Are shy students volunteering to lead? Are strugglers taking risks? Do students share their passions? When the answers to these questions is yes, then I consider myself a successful educator with successful students.

Ultimately, I desire for my students to develop a deep lifelong love of learning that will fuel them into achieving outside the realm of their current situations, no matter how difficult. The deeper the knowledge a person possesses, the more questions develop, the more empowered a person becomes.

Author: Interview by Michael Spurlin