Serendipitous destiny. These two seemingly paradoxical words describe Milagros Rodríguez’s journey thus far. Born in the Dominican Republic, the Bilingual/Bicultural Education (BBE) alumna moved to the Bronx at a very young age, which was the first step towards her destiny of becoming a bilingual special education teacher in a fifth grade integrated co-teaching classroom in Brooklyn.
Milagros had her first real exposure to English when she began school. Describing the challenges she faced because of it, Milagros explains, “I was the student that was always lagging behind. I was the student that people referred to by saying, ‘She has so much potential. She so smart; she’s so great, but she doesn’t speak English.’” Although this limited her academically at first, Milagros has always been proud to be bilingual and bicultural. She was in a bilingual program at her school until her family moved to Queens, to a school that didn’t have any kind of English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Little did she know, her elementary and middle school experiences would prove invaluable in her future career.
Struggling through middle school, Milagros worked hard and graduated high school at the top of her class. She received scholarships to attend the University of Rochester, where she majored in business and Spanish. Milagros had been told all throughout her schooling that she should teach Spanish, but as she studied Spanish formally for the first time since elementary school, she firmly decided that she did not want to teach Spanish. “I never really wanted to teach Spanish. I thought ‘I know Spanish, but I don’t want to teach Spanish; that’s very hard. I don’t want to go into teaching.’”
Ironically graduating at the worst time economically, Milagros ended up getting a part-time job at the Human Resources (HR) office at TC — a step that would change the trajectory of her life. “I feel like I got a lot of mentoring in the simple things, like getting a job, being an adult, starting a career. The people in HR really helped me.” Those same people in HR helped her get a full-time job in the Bursar’s office. She raved about the support she received while working in the Bursar’s office, recalling with warmth how she had so many mentors and wonderful people who supported her. “Everyone was so supportive, so helpful. They asked me what I wanted to do and encouraged me, saying, ‘You could go to grad school; you could do all these things!’ They were so supportive to help guide me.”
Her time working at TC sparked the idea of possibly becoming a teacher. In order to figure out what path her future career could take, Milagros took two courses in different departments at TC as a non-matriculated student.
“I had the cross-cultural course with María Torres-Guzmán, and literally, on day one, from the article she had us read and the discussion that happened that day, I knew, ‘this is what I have to do with my life.’ I remember the article spoke so much to me because it was about your identity. Literally, the first question she asked us was ‘What is your identity?’” As one who experienced the challenge of cultural and linguistic transition, she now recognizes the importance of this question in the classroom. “That’s when it clicked for me, I thought ‘these kids need me.’ I literally thought, ‘these kids need me.’ I have walked in their shoes, and I could relate to them. I could connect with them.” That first day of class led Milagros to enroll in the BBE program, and to later choose the MA in Bilingual Special Education Studies (BiSPED) degree track, a program focused on attending the needs of bilingual children who have disabilities, and leading to childhood, bilingual extension, and teaching students with disabilities certifications
It is because of her personal experiences growing up that Milagros has such a deep passion for loving and supporting her students. “I don’t want them to be the person that feels intimidated to share their story. I don’t want them to be the person that sees themselves as ‘less than’ because they do have an accent when they speak or because they were classified with a disability throughout their childhood, throughout their life. I don’t want them to see those things as hindering them or making them not equal to others. So my life mission is to let these kids see that they are just as capable as anyone else. They are worthy human beings, capable of doing whatever they want to do and of saying whatever they want to say.”
As a bilingual special education teacher in a fifth grade integrated co-teaching classroom in Brooklyn, Milagros recognizes the wonderful environment she’s in as a first-year teacher. “They are extremely supportive at my school, which is what I was looking for, this being my first year teaching. I have a mentor and she’s always in the room; she’s always there to help me. I don’t get nervous when she walks in to observe me. I actually get happy when she walks in because I know that after these lessons she’s going to give me feedback. I am also very lucky to be part of a GREAT 5th-grade team with teachers who are passionate about what they do. They not only support and help their kids every day but they help and support me with each passing day. I definitely, for those reasons, see myself staying there for a while. And then the kids. They’re the best part of it all. They’re truly great kids.”
As a teacher, Milagros also recognizes the importance of her role in connection with her students and their parents. She explains the situation and the role she is able to take in it, “Schools often classify bilingual learners as students with learning disabilities due to their limited English. Being an educator of these students allows me to help not only the students, but their parents as well. When parents are told their child has a disability, they are quick to agree to do anything to help their child. They may sign papers without knowing what they’re signing; they may agree to things not knowing what they are agreeing to. A lot of these parents don’t speak English and may not understand what is needed from them or how to help, especially since a lot of the special education lingo is difficult even for a native English speaker to understand.”
“I guess I always thought about the idea of teaching, but teachers are overworked and underpaid. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I can do better than that. I don’t want to deal with that.’ That was my mentality before. I think my attitude began to change with the little things that happened in the office while working at TC. It could be something as simple as explaining something to someone. They would tell me ‘Oh my gosh, you break things down so nicely; you should be a teacher!’ It started with those little jokes.” Those sparks began to grow and “it just all clicked after that course with Professor Guzmán. Now I think to myself, maybe my students could have just any other teacher, but I want to be there for them. I want to give my students the tools to not feel silent and to not feel ashamed of sharing their experiences, of sharing what they know, or of even asking questions or even saying I don’t know. Since then, I have never looked back.”