A tall, brunette woman with her hair gelled back in a bun stands outside Room E206. She greets her students with a tooth-flashing smile as they come into her classroom. The walls of this classroom are adorned with colorful posters; one reads “Data Matters” and it features her students’ weekly average percentage per class period. Another poster shows the levels, “Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and Mastery” with students’ names to show their level of English proficiency.
The students take their seats at the U-shaped tables and some of them sit on yoga ball chairs. On Lorena Cerecerez’ desk table is a bucket of bubble gum meant to congratulate students who acquire a one hundred percent score on their daily reading assignment. As Ms. Cerecerez comes into the room, her students ask her what today’s reading would be about with a curious look on their face.
Lorena Cerecerez has become one of the most influential and notable teachers in Del Valle High School known for her warmth and attentiveness to students’ needs. Cerecerez demonstrates leadership qualities that she hopes bring out her students’ inner leaders. Not only does she teach English as a Second Language (ESL), but she also teaches her students how to become lifelong learners beyond the courses that she teaches. Lorena Cerecerez believes learning is a skill that continues to be developed beyond college and throughout adulthood.
Lorena Cerecerez is bilingual ESL teacher at Del Valle High School (DVHS). This will be her second year teaching at DVHS. However, she has been serving the Del Valle community for 20 years. She started teaching as a bilingual third grade teacher for 14 years, then became an instructional coach for 5 years before becoming an ESL teacher.
Cerecerez, 44, identifies as Mexican American. She obtained a bachelor of arts in sociology at the University of Texas at El Paso. She describes that one of her biggest interests was people – learning about the way they thought and why they acted the way they did. Later along her college journey, Cerecerez participated in a program that prepared students to get into college. It was this program that piqued her interest in teaching. She thought, “if we could get these students at a younger age and cultivate in them the love of learning at that age, we would not have to deal with the issues that we are seeing in these students.”
She went on to get certified to teach bilingual first through sixth grade, certified to teach language arts in reading seventh through 12th grade, and ESL from first through 12th grade.
Cerecerez describes that becoming a teacher was something she had not planned on; therefore, how is it that she has made an impact on the Del Valle community and continues to be successful and a leader for many within her profession?
Cerecerez believes that each of us is equipped with the qualities of a good leader and it is a matter of pulling them out from within. One of the ways inner leaders are drawn out is through acknowledging those skills in yourself and in others. She also encourages to help others bring out their skills to demonstrate their leadership.
“If we empower kids with the right mindset, we’ll be helping draw out the leaders in them,” she said. “Know that you have it so that you can use that to become that person that you are meant to be.”
By serving as a role model, Cerecerez hopes students will be encouraged to adopt those skills and that later in life, when they become impactful role models. They can then inspire future generations of leaders.
Cerecerez said celebrating growth and progress is key to helping her students get to where they need to be and meet the state requirements. Many of her students begin learning English from an elementary grade reading level and the gap between the starting point and end goal may seem difficult to achieve with how little time is given within a school year.
However, through strategic planning, guiding her students, acknowledging their hard work and commitment, and being persistent, she believes it is possible to close that gap.
“Sometimes we don’t take into account that they are the driving force, but if we keep feeding them and telling them that they will be okay and to look at how much they’ve grown, at the end of the day, they will realize how much progress they have made and will gain the confidence to keep moving forward,” Cerecerez said. “It’s not about always being right because that is not the goal, it’s about ‘What can you learn from this? What was the purpose of that?’”
Cerecerez remembered that her first leadership position was serving as grade level chair for third grade teachers at Del Valle Elementary. Being grade level chair entailed being a messenger between administration and third grade teachers at the elementary. Although it was extra work, she did not mind because it gave her an opportunity to learn and grow her skills as a leader.
“As a leader, you have to know your role and who you are representing. Get to know your team,” Cerecerez said.
Later in her professional career, when Cerecerez served as instructional coach, she recognized her audience changed. Cerecerez’ role was now to give the teachers the tools they needed so that they could provide the tools that their students needed. She expresses that an important part of leading is recognizing that one fills the position for the team and that everything one does within that position is for the team.
When managing her team, whether it is students or adults, Cerecerez describes that reminding the team of their goal and encouraging them will yield results. She encourages her students to continue doing their assignments because the work is ultimately done for them. Although Cerecerez may raise her expectations for the students from time to time, she does so because she knows that they will rise to it. With adults, she describes it is different; she provides more leeway, but everybody in the team is held accountable and is heard.
“Something that can hold the team back is when a team member thinks that what they say doesn’t matter or that nobody cares,” she said. “That’s where you, as a leader, need to go in to pull them back in and remind them that what they say matters and that we are here to support them. That makes the teamwork better.”
Cerecerez also expresses that being a leader includes getting your hands dirty.
“It’s not just about giving orders, it’s about being there in the trenches moving along with everybody else,” she said.
She says a sign of a good leader is looking at a team and having to ask who is in charge because, truly, everyone is in charge.
Cerecerez recommends to those UTEP students who want to make an impact in their professional fields to remember that they represent their community, and that there are many people behind them.
“Know your colleagues and know that you are here for a reason,” she said. “You encounter everybody that you encounter for a reason; they have something that you need and you have something that they need. While you’re living here on this Earth, keep growing, learning and smiling.”
Mariana Velasco may be reached at [email protected]