This is Ashley Atilano’s third year of teaching. Her first year was completely online, six months into a global pandemic. The second year was her first year in-person, rife with pandemic stress and trauma, student absences, and staffing shortages. Despite it all, she is eager and hopeful to have a school year that is as “normal, fun, and joyful” as possible. 

A native of Santa Ana, CA, Ashley teaches English to 11th and 12th graders in South Gate, CA, about seven miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. While studying at GW, Ashley spent two memorable summers as a Teaching Fellow at Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano. In 2019, she graduated with a B.A. in English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. The following year, Ashley earned her M.A. in English Education from Stanford University.

We spoke to Ashley who is in her fourth week of teaching about how things are going, her hopes for the year, and what inspires her to teach.

It’s been about a month, how are things going? 

I think students have definitely gotten more into the rhythm of school again, especially in comparison to last school year, where there were just a lot more behavioral incidents, in part because students were learning how to be human and social again. Even though we were in person last year, in so many ways students were finding their grounding on campus. So in comparison, this school year has started off a lot calmer. 

What are you hopeful for?

I am hopeful to have as “normal” a school year as possible. What I continue to keep in mind is envisioning my students in the grade level they were in when the pandemic started. In so many ways, that’s who they still are, in terms of the time we’ve lost and how that’s contributing to the person they are right now. I really try to be mindful and gracious of that in trying to meet students where they are at. We haven’t even started to see the ramifications of the impact of being online. I’m really trying to make it as normal and also as fun as possible.

As we continue to hear about the teacher shortage, what is it that keeps you dedicated and motivated to teach?

That’s a big question right now. I can speak to the teacher shortage. Looking at the staff when I started my first year, more than half are gone for a number of different reasons. Students have been shocked to see the majority of their teachers are gone. So much of the pressure has been to return to what school looked like prior to the pandemic. There’s this tendency to point fingers at the teacher like it’s your fault these scores have gone down so much. No, there’s been a whole global pandemic in between those test scores. It’s way more complicated than that. 

In terms of what keeps me going… It’s what I’d imagine any teacher would say. It’s a labor of love. That’s all I can bring it back to. I always describe to my students that teaching is incredibly personal. I work in a community that is pretty similar to my community in the sense that it is a predominantly low-income, predominantly immigrant, Latino community. Teaching for me is very purposeful and very strategic. 

I remember myself in elementary school having the idea that I would go to college even though looking around me I didn’t have family or other examples that communicated that message. I think I believed in large part because I had teachers who were so asset based and positive and really saw the strengths I had in myself.

For my community, we’ve been disenfranchised for a number of different reasons. I’ve seen education as an opportunity to remedy a lot of those inequities that we’ve experienced. That’s what I come back to and what I think about when there’s a disruptive moment in class or a headache in a staff meeting. I try to ground myself in the reminder that the long-term outcomes of students having a really positive classroom experience is something that I can’t even quantify. I’d like to believe that’s going to make our world so much better.  

When you think back to Breakthrough, what sticks with you?

I really feel like I owe the competence I feel as a teacher to Breakthrough. Breakthrough gives you such hands-on experience in terms of managing your classroom, lesson planning, and participating in a micro version of what a school year looks like. It was the stepping stone I needed to become an educator. I felt coming out of the program a more competent, future educator.  

The second thing is those experiences with the students. The first group of students I taught just graduated from high school and are now going into college. It’s awesome to see Breakthrough work out. You build those bonds over summer, we’re there for them through high school, and they go onto college. You get to see it happen. That makes it all worthwhile. To see those first students go through and you know they’re going to college. I’m super happy for them. 

I can’t underscore how much I love and appreciate Breakthrough to this day.

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