Rosa Ceja, a Math teacher from Alliance Collins Family High School (CA), inspires her first-generation college scholars to dream big, work hard, and be resilient. Read the complete interview:
Jillian Mendoza: Tell me about your journey into teaching mathematics.
Rosa Ceja: I always liked math, and have always been good at it. I got that from my dad, he was really good at math. When I went to college I knew I wanted to study something related to math, but didn’t know where that would take me. I decided to major in math and honestly never thought I would go down the teacher path! I thought, “There’s no way! Teaching is hard! Students are tough!” In college I just started helping other students with their math homework and I realized I was good at teaching so I pursued math education as a career.
I got my Bachelor’s in Math Education and teaching credential from Cal State University, Dominguez Hills. I entered the classroom as an intern while going to school at the same time. The intern program, STEM Institute for Innovation and Improvement (CSI3) was really helpful because they give you hands-on experience as to what teaching is going to be like. That experience before teaching in the fall helped me to learn from my mistakes before teaching full time, where I'm the only one in the room with 30 students! I got to learn so much about classroom management and everything. My program placed me with a master teacher in the summer and we got to collaborate and get feedback from them in the program. It was really great to get my toes wet before the real thing.
I found my job through Cal State Dominguez Hills as well, I got two job offers at their job fair and one was from Alliance Collins Family High School. They made me feel really good about myself and offered me the position on the spot in my interview, which I was happy to accept.
Jillian Mendoza: What are the challenges faced by students at your school?
Rosa Ceja: My school serves many students whose families are considered low income school, and we tend to see students deal with all sorts of challenges- gangs nearby, poverty, tough home, mental health challenges, and a lack of resources available to parents and scholars in the community. Many of my students are the first generation to go to high school and college, they have immigrant parents who have worked hard for them to have a better life in Los Angeles.
Mendoza: Having been at one school site for over five years now, how does that affect the relationships you build with students?
Ceja: The first thing I do is connect with them, I feel like I can connect on a personal level because I see myself in them. My students have parents that are immigrants; I have parents that are immigrants. They come from low income neighborhoods, so do I. I come from Lynwood and I see a little bit of me in every student that I have, since I grew up in a similar city.
I just listen to my students, and give them that space to open up to me. Even if they have something so simple to say, like “Oh I broke up with my girlfriend” I give them that space to talk about it without judgement. Students know I am here to listen to them, to withhold judgement, and support them through any challenges they may be facing.
Once students know they are able to talk to me and that I respect them, they are able to come back and get support and help from you if it's needed.
Mendoza: What do you share with students that helps them to relate to you?
Ceja: I've shared personal things with my students so they know I can relate to what they're going through. A while back I had a student suffering with his mental health and it was very serious, he had to seek treatment. After talking to him and hearing his story, I shared that I had family members who went through the same thing. I offer encouragement for students to seek out support and I let them know they aren’t alone in the challenges they face.
I stay in touch with students even when they are no longer in my class, to see how they are doing. The best thing is when students reach out to me years later to say “Thank you Ms. Ceja for looking out for me”. For a young person to reach out and say thank you is such a big thing, it lets me know I made a difference in their life.
Mendoza: It sounds like students see you as a role model?
Ceja: I notice it helps when I tell students, “If I can do it you can do it”. We grew up in the same area, we have similar culture (being Hispanic), and it just helps them see that they can be successful because I did it too.
I was the first one in my family to complete college and my my mom moved to LA from El Salvador and my dad moved from Mexico. My students and I talk about things we have in common, like Hispanic music. The most popular genre they like is Banda, so I’ll be able to have a conversation about what groups they like. On a Monday morning I’ll share with them that I went to a party and they were playing songs of Grupo Firme. I teach them to have the connection to our heritage and to be proud of what we listen to. I tell students, “Don't forget it when you go to college, this is who we are and what we listen to.”
When I was a Freshman in college I went to El Bicentenario de La Raza at Pico Rivera Sports Arena, I still remember that experience. I tell students to stay true to themselves even if their culture isn’t reflected by other college students in their college classes.
Mendoza: How do you support your students as first-generation college scholars while navigating the pressures they face at home?
Ceja: The one thing I push for with my students is to make sure what you do in your life you are doing for yourself to be happy, while doing something to take care of your parents in the future. In Hispanic culture, the kids take care of their parents when they're older, most kids know this because their grandparents live with them. I tell my students the best feeling is when you get your degree and enter your career so you can take care of your patents. They came to this country to give you a better life, the best you can do is give back to them. That’s the number one connection I have with them.
My students do feel a lot of pressure. I shared with them that when I applied to college I got accepted to Cal State Chico but my dad didn't let me go, he said it was too far away and I would be by myself away from home. I completely understand the pressure from Mexican and Central American families. It's all about family.
When my dad didn't let me go, I was mad and upset, but now that I think about it, staying here was the best decision I made. I met my fiance, I got to graduate close to home and I got to take care of my parents. Even though I was upset at the time I wouldn't change for the world. They supported me to get a degree. My dad said, “Look you'll have your car, be closer, and you can come back and forth.” I’m the youngest and his favorite so looking back I understand! Now that I think about it, it would’ve been hard to live alone at 17.
I tell students I understand the pressure, I still go through it with family so I get it. I tell them you have to think about it, your parents always know what is best. If you really want to study out of state, really think about it and ask yourself, “Can I afford it? What am I going to do?” I share my experience and how the family part works, and my students know they can get through it.
Mendoza: It sounds like you help your students to navigate some really big life decisions. How does this play into teaching them math?
Ceja: I think it helps 100% with teaching them math. If I don't create relationships with my students, I wouldn't be able to teach them. I think, ‘hey my students need to know who I am and connect with them before the math could ever stick’. It helps because when you remember their accomplishments, like when they win a basketball game, you can apply that to lessons you're teaching them. In the past I connected our work on quadratics to shooting baskets. You can incorporate their interests and hobbies into your lessons.
Mendoza: Many teachers are more aware than ever about supporting students of all backgrounds and identities. What advice do you have for your fellow educators?
Ceja: In many ways I have an advantage with my students, because we share the same cultural background. If it was someone else in my position, they might have a harder time connecting with students, I’ve seen it happen.
If you don't come from the same background or community as your students, the best advice I could say is what I've seen so far, that you need to begin with a focus on relationships. If you jump straight into academics, you will have trouble getting buy-in from your students because you cannot connect with them on a personal level. Sometimes academics needs to come second, you have to build trust and credibility first.
Ask your students questions about who they are, what they are dealing with, and build those quick questions like “What did you do this weekend?” and really listen to their answers.
Honestly, the best thing you could do is get involved in things that are part of your students culture. If your students go to the fair in Huntington Park, if they see you at the fair, they'll know you are active in their community. They think, ‘that teacher does the same things I'm doing and I can talk to them about it’. Don't just ask about things they’re interested in, go out and do them.
I remember a few years ago some teachers attended a DACA protest to support students who are Dreamers. For weeks students talked about it and it had a big impact on the relationships that students had with those teachers.
I think about if the situation was reversed and I taught at a school without any Hispanic students- I’d have the same challenges and would need to learn a lot about what my students were involved in.
Mendoza: Any other advice for teachers?
Ceja: Use humor in your class, a little goes a long way. If you add a joke or a meme in your warm-ups you can quickly connect with students who may be having a hard time opening up.