Bridging the classroom culture gap
First five graduates of Pionero program increase teacher diversity in Nashville schools
Elisa Martinez first envisioned herself as a teacher while working at Chuck E. Cheese. In kindergarten, Angelica Wright lined her stuffed animals up in a row and used the bathroom tile as a “whiteboard” to teach them the day’s lessons. Ruby Aguilar remembers bringing home loads of books from the library and trading book reports with her sister.
Alondra Piña Mota practiced teaching through a traditional Mexican dance troupe she founded. And Ahmedina Bacevac was inspired to go into teaching by influential relationships she had with her own teachers, including those she knew while her family were refugees from war-torn Bosnia.
These are the women in Lipscomb University’s first cohort of Pionero Scholars, four who graduated in May and a fifth scheduled to graduate in December.
They are the first regiment in Lipscomb’s fight to reduce the culture gap between the diversity of students in Nashville public schools and the diversity of the faces they see at the head of the classroom.
The four May graduates began teaching in Metro Nashville Public Schools this August and they are each excited about bringing new opportunities and experiences to their students.
“I want my (future) students to be self-confident in their abilities,” said Piña, a Glencliff High School graduate and sixth grade English language arts teacher at McMurray Middle School. “That is one of the biggest things I learned as a student. I really want them to see a challenge and believe in themselves and believe they can do it too, no matter their background.”
“I look forward to decorating a classroom equipped for strong leaders. I’m eager to create a safe haven for my future students,” said Martinez, a Hume Fogg High School graduate and second grade teacher at Glenview Elementary School.
Funded by a private grant, the Pionero Scholars program was established in 2015 with the intent to recruit Nashville students who reflect the diversity of Nashville to go into the teaching field and hopefully end up working in the school system where they grew up.
“Our goal was to create a local pipeline,” said Laura Delgado, program director of increasing teacher diversity and a mentor to all 21 Pionero Scholars now in that pipeline. “The idea was to grow our own. We know there is a teacher shortage, and the answer to that in Nashville is found in the halls of the Nashville schools.”
In addition, like the nation as a whole, Nashville schools suffer from a culture gap with more than 30 percent of MNPS’ students coming from households in which English is not the primary language and 67 percent identifying as a minority, while only 22.5 percent of MNPS educators are African American and only 2.2 percent are Hispanic.
This gap feeds a perception among high school students with diverse backgrounds that education is not a potential career option for them.
The idea was to grow our own. We know there is a teacher shortage, and the answer to that in Nashville is found in the halls of the Nashville schools. — Laura Delgado, Pionero Scholars program director
“For me, it felt like that I knew the opportunity was there, but I remember my classmates and I felt that it wasn’t really ours in a way,” said Bacevac, the only daughter of Bosnian refugees who brought her to America when she was 18-months old. “You are urged to go to college, but then that imposter syndrome kicks in and tells you, you are not meant for it or you are not good enough for it.”
Keeping the concerns of these particular students in mind, the Pionero program was designed to provide a $10,000 per year scholarship to Lipscomb, professional development and networking, mentorship and a community of diverse, like-minded students.
The program has proven not just successful in training new diverse teachers, but it has become a genuine lifeline and crucially valuable to the five 2020 graduates.
“I got a lot of things from Pionero in academics, in social and emotional learning and just navigating the whole college process,” said Piña, who like many first-generation college students appreciated having someone to advise her “how to apply for FAFSA, or how to buy books and register for classes.”
“Pionero was there to help with that. Otherwise I don’t know what I would have done,” said Piña, who was brought to the U.S. by her Mexican parents as a baby.
“It was nice to come to Lipscomb with the already built-in community of the other Pioneros,” said Bacevac, a Glencliff graduate and seventh grade social studies teacher at STEM Prep Academy. “From the get-go (Delgado) has been my backbone. Anything I needed, any kind of advice, no matter the time—she was like a college mom.”
The Pionero cohort of students often meets together outside of classes to discuss professional development and life skills topics to prepare them for their future as pioneers in an urban school environment.
“That is what most of us are aiming for,” Aguilar, an English teaching major who earned her student teaching hours at Overton High School this fall. “(Delgado) helps us figure out who we are as people and who we are as teachers. How our ethnic background makes us who we are and how we can advocate for ourselves as teachers.”
“We set academic and personal goals for ourselves, such as what specific things we can do for our health or how to get out of our comfort zones, which sometimes might be getting involved with other Lipscomb communities. Talking about those non-academic things has really helped me,” said Aguilar, a Glencliff graduate who was born to El Salvadorian immigrant parents. “Laura will find resources or bring in new people. Such as the mock interviews we did with an expert who told us about what questions we should ask the interviewer about the work environment. Those little things gave me a sense of hope”
In addition to the support services for the enrolled Pioneros, Delgado carries out extensive outreach to Nashville’s high schools, providing essay writing workshops and a summer camp focused on college readiness and teaching skills. The Pionero program holds a preview day where students are invited to campus for mock interviews, an essay writing workshop and a tour of campus.
She often takes the current Pioneros with her out to the schools for a teacher observation day or to speak to younger students. In fact, mentorship of younger students is a major component of the program, Delgado said.
“They are inspiring younger generations. They offer students opportunities to see someone from their own school and background model how to navigate college and career successfully,” she said, noting that now the Pionero program has multiple sets of cousins in its ranks.
The new Pionero teachers are committed to bringing a greater future for their future diverse students in the teaching field or any career they set their mind to.
“Looking back it is definitely important for students to see teachers who look like themselves in a powerful role,” said Wright, a half Filipina who often visited the Philippines as she grew up. “I think my background will allow me to connect with my students on different levels. And to pick more relatable texts and topics to study.
“Because I am more globally competent, it will allow me to see more and value more of the talents and ideas that the students bring to the classroom. It is good for me to be a mirror to my students, for them to see that it is cool to be a teacher and maybe they will become a teacher too,” said Wright, a Martin Luther King High School graduate and first grade teacher at Hickman Elementary School.
“I think it would be really valuable having a teacher who went to Metro Nashville schools and knows what it is like,” said Bacevac, noting how that experience can help her students overcome the “imposter syndrome” she felt. “Having a program like (Pionero), you can not only provide students opportunity but also make them feel adequate and ready enough. You can help them know they are ready enough.”
“The Pionero program shaped me,” said Martinez, “and I wish I held on to it a little tighter before it all went away.”
Lipscomb’s 2020 Pionero Scholars
Elisa Martinez (’20)
High School: Hume Fogg High School
Major: Early Childhood Education, pre-K-grade 3
Ethnic Background: Mexican
My first job was at Chuck E. Cheese, and that’s where I envisioned myself as an educator. I love the atmosphere and enthusiasm that children create and will always want to be a part of that — Elisa Martinez ('20), second-grade teacher at Glenview Elementary School
Martinez credits her achievements thus far to her family, who are “strong risk takers,” and to Delgado who “was a fantastic companion going through the scary college process.”
Through the Pionero program, Martinez has gained opportunities to network with the community and teachers at local schools, which helped her “gain confidence and bravery,” she said. She worked as a counselor at the Pionero summer camp for three years and met diverse teachers throughout the community.
“I adore working with young students! I love being a critical part of their lives and watching them grow. It’s a great feeling being a factor in children’s lives because I know I can make a difference and develop their love for learning,” she said.
“I definitely feel confident to begin my career in education,” said Martinez. “I feel more than ready and have grown so much these past four years. Lipscomb and the education program have helped me be the strong, independent person that I am today.
Martinez said her long-term goal is to go to graduate school and learn more about English Language Learning.
Angelica Wright (’20)
High School: Martin Luther King High School
Major: Elementary Education, grades K-5
Ethnic Background: Filipina
Throughout kindergarten, I would come home from school and line up my stuffed animals and use the bathroom tile as a whiteboard to teach them what I learned that day. I made report cards for them. I asked my parents to be part of my class. — Angelica Wright ('20), first-grade teacher at Hickman Elementary School
As she grew up, Wright visited the classrooms of her aunts who were teachers in the Philippines. Her grandmother was a first- and second-grade teacher and a Sunday school teacher.
“Teachers have endless stories about their kids, and I love listening to them,” Wright said.
In high school she was actively involved in tutoring programs and the state’s Homework Hotline program.
During her college career, Wright studied abroad as part of Lipscomb’s program in Santiago, Chile, she participated in Phi Nu social club and she worked part-time jobs at Nashville’s Glendale Elementary and at La Petite Preschool.
Wright fell in love with elementary education during her practicum, she said.
“A huge part of elementary is learning how to be a good human being. Learning how to share, how to love yourself and to detect what you are feeling and expressing your emotions in a healthy way,” she said. “What I love (about teaching) is the relational learning. I hope I can be an overall role model for my students, and that they can see a little of themselves in me.”
Alondra Piña Mota (’20)
High School: Glencliff High School
Major: English Teaching, grades 6-12
Ethnic Background: Mexican
I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know if it was a possibility because my parents weren’t ready financially for me to go to college… I am the first one in my family to go to college, and now I am the first one in my family to graduate from college. — Alondra Piña Mota (’20), sixth-grade teacher McMurry Middle School
Piña has thrived on the Lipscomb campus, drawing on the emotional, community and financial support provided by the Pionero program and other cultural resources.
During her college years, she started a dance group called Unidos en Baile (meaning “United in Dance”). The group performed the traditional Mexican dance called ballet folklórico on campus and in the community.
She served as an officer with Lipscomb’s Office of Intercultural Development and joined the Diverse Student Coalition and the intercultural W.E.B. Du Bois Honors Society. She participated in a mission trip to Puerto Rico and Lipscomb’s chapter of the League of United Latin American Coalition, a national group that encourages young Latinos to be advocates for their communities.
“We definitely still need more teachers of color in the classroom. In my (student teaching) placement I definitely saw that students were not seeing their faces on teachers,” said Piña. “When I was a student in Metro, I definitely missed having a teacher that I could relate to… If all the teachers look the same, that is not representative of the real world. Especially in Nashville which is so diverse. Having that reality in the classroom makes a big difference.”
Ahmedina Bacevac (’20)
High School: Glencliff High School
Major: History Teaching, grades 6-12
Ethnic Background: Bosnian
I looked around at who in my life was most influential to me, and at the time it was my teachers. I had really good relationships with my teachers… I think it is really important to meet students where they are. — Ahmedina Bacevac (’20), seventh-grade social studies teacher at STEM Prep Academy
Bacevac’s parents struggled with infertility for 20 years. At the time of the Bosnian War, they escaped to Germany, and two years later, when her mother was 40 years old, Ahmedina came along.
The family came to America through the World Relief Organization and were placed in Nashville with $300 in food stamps and assistance finding a job and an apartment.
Bacevac studied abroad in Lipscomb’s program in Santiago, Chile and studied in Costa Rica. She was a member of Pi Delta, Best Buddies, the Diverse Student Coalition and Phi Alpha Beta, an academic society for history. She also served on the Quest team, Lipscomb’s student orientation staff, for two summers.
“I wanted to be someone for other minority students, to be a different voice, because I knew what it was like coming to college without knowing what to expect,” she said.
Bacevac loves teaching middle school students because “they are really goofy,” she said. “Middle schoolers really surprise me about how they perceive the world. They are going through a lot of changes and they definitely need that support.”
Ruby Aguilar (Dec. 2020)
High School: Glencliff High School
Major: English Teaching, grades 6-12
Ethnic Background: El Salvadorian
I want my students to have more knowledge of the world around them from the literature we study in class, but to also to start understanding what contributions they bring to the world. — Ruby Aguilar (Dec. 2020), student English teacher at Overton High School
Aguilar discovered her calling in teaching a little later, after having come to Lipscomb to study biology in pre-medicine. But after one year she knew a change was in order.
“When I worked one-on-one with a student in my practicum and she had a language barrier, it made me think about my childhood, when I was also in ELL at one point. It realized there are not many teachers with that same background, and it made me realize this is what I am passionate about—a love for students and sharing with them diverse literature and my love for reading.”
She most wants to pass on to students her love of reading and writing. “Growing up I would have my parents buy me notebooks and I would write essays about life or little notes to my future self,” she said.
Her parents, who both had only grade school educations and grew up in poverty, dreamed that their children would achieve an education beyond their own. “My parents made sure that at home we spoke Spanish, and learned about the food, culture and music of El Salvador,” said Aguilar.
When her future students think of Ms. Aguilar, she wants them to remember someone “who didn’t try to push her own opinions on them but instead helped them to develop their own opinions and go out of their way to make a presence in the world.