Herald Head of the Class Awards 2021: High School Winner Rebeca Rodriguez

Meet the East Rockaway Foreign Language Teacher

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East Rockaway High School foreign language teacher Rebecca Rodriguez doesn’t remember why she got into teaching, but she knows she loves it.

“To tell you the truth, it was so long ago, I don’t even remember why,” says Rodriguez. “I think it was back in the 1980s — I’m on my way to retirement now — and it was the perfect job for me as I had a young family.”

Teaching foreign language remotely during the pandemic has been hard on Rodriguez, who strives to form strong bonds with her students. “I was actually in tears a lot of times this year that I wasn’t able to be there and to see the kids,” she says. “A lot of the teachers told me it’s just as difficult for us because with the mask on, you can’t even see facial expressions, and most of the things that we do are by noticing kids’ facial expressions. If a kid is confused, if a kid is sad that day, if they’re disturbed about something, you really can’t even see it because of the face mask.”

Rodriguez has great empathy and fondness for her students, which comes across in how she describes them. “Over the years, there have been so many experiences that I think about and make me cry,” she says. “I keep in touch with a lot of my students. They text me. I give them my phone number when they graduate, because I teach 10th, 11th and 12th grade. I give them my phone number and I say, ‘Anything that you need, or if you want to get in touch.’”

Many of Rodriguez’s students come to an early-morning extra help session, which helps her build relationships with them. “I always come in early, and I open up my classroom. We call it the gossip session,” she says with a laugh. “A whole bunch of kids come in. My class starts at 8 o’clock, but I’m there at about 7:15. I open up my classroom, and the kids just come in and sit there and have breakfast and tell me about their day before. It’s usually maybe 10, 12 different kids, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I came in through for you to help me with homework, but you know what happened yesterday?’ I hear about their basketball game, or I hear what they were doing last night or what movie they saw. That is my favorite time of the day.”

As someone who has been teaching her entire adult life, Rodriguez has seen a shift in focus toward standardized testing that she finds worrying. “It forces teachers to stop being creative and just stick to the test. That’s not fair. We’re trying to say, by testing the kids that they’re like forming this cookie cutter pattern for them, and then every single kid is an individual, you can’t grade them by a standardized test and say that everyone has to score the same.”

Rodriguez sees the potential in students beyond their ability to score well on a test. “Every single child is different, and you need to try and teach them the way that they learn and for the needs that they have. If we’re expecting that everybody’s going to be the same, what a boring world.”

Rodriguez has words of wisdom and love for her students: “Just stay curious, always, and learn. There’s always something new to learn, to have fun with, to find out about. Always keep your minds open. It’s such a great world out there. We just get hit with all the ugliness all the time. That’s what we read about in newspapers most of the time, and see on TV. Everybody focuses on the bad. There are so many great things going on out there. Keep growing and keep learning.”

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