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Juan Aguinaga

Age: 26

Job: Teacher Team Leader, IDEA Toros College Preparatory School

Location: Edinburg, Texas

Juan and I were connected through my roommate, Kristin, who met him through Teach For America at the start of both of their teaching careers. Juan decided to move back to his hometown in the Rio Grande Valley to give back to the school that gave him so much. Reflecting on his own background, Juan feels that he has an obligation to fight the education battle in America to ensure that every child receives a quality education, specifically in low-income areas. In his story, we discuss the teacher who helped him learn to read and write in high school, the long-lasting issues that come from kids not receiving a good education, and his goal of starting his own school one day. You'll find Juan's story empowering, inspiring, and raw.

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I was born in Houston and moved down to the Rio Grande Valley when my parents divorced, so I like to consider myself a native of South Texas. I went to a public charter school and matriculated from there, then joined Teach For America and decided to come back to the Valley because of my passion for education. I felt that it was kind of my need to give back to the exact community that really pushed me forward when I was a child. I fell in love with education, so I decided to apply to Columbia University in their master's program in Public School Building Leadership. I am currently working on my master's degree while working at IDEA Public Schools, which is an off-model school from the traditional ones. Our model is to focus heavily on personalized learning, where kids work on projects, develop cognitive skills and habits of success through mentoring, and they also play at the highest level of soccer in the country with the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy. We're molding kids to be amazing scholars, but to also be elite athletes that will eventually go on to play on D-1 or D-3 teams and then hopefully achieve their dreams of becoming professionals and move on from that.

Can you tell us about your program you're in at Columbia University?

My program is a 14-month-intensive program where I travel to Columbia for two summers and in between those two summers, I get to keep my job here. I am working on a project where I take leadership tasks here within the school to get that knowledge and experience level of being the school leader. The idea is that one day when I do have my own school, I already know what it's like to be a school leader.

When did you know that this was the right path for you?

It wasn't until my senior year in college when I really started to reflect on where I came from, the kids from my community, and my own low-income background, that I figured out the educational profession was what I wanted to dedicate my life to. I just felt that there is this huge battle in America to ensure that every child receives a quality education because it's not happening in some areas. Many children are falling through the cracks without any chance to improve their future. So, unfortunately here in my community, that's the case. It's the reason why I decided to return to my city for Teach For America and work for the same school district that I graduated from. There's a lot at stake with kids not earning an education. We repeat the cycle of poverty so their children that follow after them face the same battles and likely fall into the same patterns. Because of this, I tell my peers day in and day out that you should be putting in 100% for these kids because, without you, there is nothing. For me, I can't just stand here idly and watch more kids slip through the cracks and not have the chance to achieve their dreams.

What would you say has been the most crucial moment in your professional career so far?

When I think back to my first two years of teaching, I was not very receptive to feedback. I kind of just jumped into the field head-on thinking I knew everything there was to know, and I really undervalued the actual profession itself. As I think back to some of my check-ins with my first managers where they were trying to give me feedback on lesson plans or just my classroom in general, I realize that I pushed back on everything they were saying because it was either my way or the highway at the time. I didn't realize that having another set of eyes on your work is very crucial in the classroom. In fact, if I didn't have the ability to take feedback now, I know that my classroom would crash and burn, so I'm grateful for this initial hardship. Learning that within my first two years of Teach For America, and learning how to hold crucial conversations with adults, was the moment that I started shifting my thinking to working with a team, which has proven to help me get to where I am today.

What is it like being a male in your field and what would you say to any young men who are thinking about joining this profession?

I haven't really thought about that question much. When I think of a lack of males in education, I think of the lower grade levels like kindergarten through fifth grade. That's where I believe males are needed, especially in low-income communities, because a lot of the times the kids don't have father figures at home for whatever reason and most males teach high school. I do believe that there should be more males at the lower grade levels for young kids to look up to and have someone to talk to. In terms of like my profession, I think being a male sometimes makes me come off as aggressive because I am very direct and don't beat around the bush. I tell people how it is and I do that because we have to operate with a sense of urgency within the school environment since we have a limited amount of time with these kids. We have to ensure that every single minute we're using is worthwhile for them, so I always try to clear that up with anyone I work with by telling them that I'm going to be direct, but I expect them to do the same. Obviously I navigate different grounds and types of people to ensure that I'm also building a positive relationship with these people and not turning them off.

Can you talk about a moment with a student or a group of students that you feel has been impactful for both the student and yourself?

This particular student just recently graduated this past year, who is now at Wabash College. I worked with him for two years and thought he was an incredible student and did well in every class, but he had a lot of trouble with his leadership skills and getting along with people. That's something that I helped him with during our mentoring sessions together for two years. It's not something that is really in the job description, but you just have to do it because you can't turn a kid away. This kid would always come to me asking questions on what he could improve and ask for advice on how to communicate with other teachers and administrators based on his needs. Seeing him develop as a leader when hosting those conversations and just being a self-advocate, is what I love to see when it comes to kids developing themselves. He is doing extremely well now and still reaches out on a daily basis. When I hear from kids who have graduated and left IDEA, it really gets to me to hear they are doing well and are successful now.

Can you talk more about your mentoring style?

I particularly focus on students figuring out who they are first and what their goals are. Whenever kids come to me with a problem, I'll let them rant for a minute and listen to what they're saying. Then, I always ask them first what their primary immediate goal is.

What do they want to accomplish now? That question usually stumps them and gets them thinking about their goals. Then, they start to figure out that complaining or ranting is not going to help them achieve those goals. I'll walk them through the process, starting with what they need to do in order to get what they want. I'll ask what it is that they need to accomplish in the moment or what they want to solve because kids often forget these details. I tell them that because they're going to have to focus on the task at hand in the future, and I start instilling that in them at an early age as a mentor.

Who is someone that has inspired you?

I would say Jeremy Beard, the principal of the high school I graduated from. When I met him, I didn't know how to read and was pretty behind in my writing skills as well. English was also not my first language; I picked it up around the second or third grade, but I still had trouble with that. Jeremy took time out of his schedule to take me to Barnes & Noble and pick out a book that I actually wanted to read. I had English teachers giving us assignments for books I didn't like, and I didn't like being forced to read. When I went on those trips with Mr. Beard, I would always gravitate towards the Harry Potter book series or Star Wars. He taught me how to read and write and I felt that because of that time he put in, I really developed in middle and high school. It is what eventually got me to college, but he also mentored me in sports in terms of perseverance, and never giving up. He taught me that even if something is a challenge, I should always go in with a game plan based on the strengths and weaknesses at hand. He showed me that my attitude in sports and my competitiveness has translated to my current job in that I'm competitive for my kids. I want the best for my kids, so I'm always going to go in with a game plan.

What is the best and worst piece of advice that you have ever received?

The best piece of advice is to be flexible. You never know what's going to happen when you walk into the building, or on your drive to the building, or when you're leaving. There is a lot of things that occur at a school and you have to make decisions minute by minute, so flexibility definitely goes a long way in the school environment. The worst piece of feedback I've received was to always be a yes person. Throughout my first year, I said yes to everything and found that it really sucks time out of your calendar and you lose your fidelity to your own life. It throws off your balance and you really can't focus on what's important in your actual job.

What do you feel like are your core commitments at this point in your life?

At this point, it is to deliver great instruction to the children I serve and to work towards establishing my own charter school one day. One of the reasons I decided to join the master's program at Columbia was because of the new school design project, in which you create a school from the ground up. This includes everything from operations to the curriculum to enrollment, and it turns out to be a very long project from what I saw in the previous cohort. I want to grab that project and bring it down to the Rio Grande Valley, with the focus being on a personalized learning model, because I know that there's a very high need here for great education. The need is there and the need is also across the country, so I really want to just provide an option like this one day for kids. If I have the chance to have that school of my own one day, I'd like it to be free for all kids and provide a great education like many other schools in the Valley already do. My goal is for this to happen probably within the next six or seven years.

What do you like about being a young professional?

I love teaching because it gives me the time idea I need to pursue my hobbies. I recently got caught up with triathlons, and I actually completed an Ironman back in May. Being a young professional allows me to have time for myself, and allows me to be a life-long learner. My field, fortunately, gives me the time to do all that and to train in the afternoons and then be able to do my work.

The YoPro Know's Takeaways:

– There is a huge battle in America to ensure that every child receives a quality education because it's not happening in many areas

– When kids don't receive a great education, we repeat the cycle of poverty so their children that follow after them face the same battles

– Don't always be a yes person

– Be receptive to feedback early on in your career

– Even if something is a challenge, always go in with a game plan

Check it out: IDEA Public School, Columbia University Master of Arts – Public School Building Leadership, Rio Grande Valley, Teach For America

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