Anna Gonzalez, Scarlett Middle School Spanish teacher

Anna Gonzalez grew up outside of Chicago in a town called Inverness with her parents and three older sisters. Her parents met in medical school in the Philippines, and after they married and had their first two children, they spent all their money to immigrate to the U.S. The Gonzalez family lived with an aunt and uncle and their family and borrowed $500 to begin their quest for the American dream.

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a Spanish degree and a mathematics minor, Gonzalez moved to Austin, Texas to work in AmeriCorps, tutoring kindergarteners through second graders to read in Spanish. She then worked in college access at a high school in Del Valle, Texas before returning to Ann Arbor to earn a Master’s in Education and teaching certificate through U-M’s School of Education.

Gonzalez now lives in Ypsilanti with her dog Sir Chester (who goes by “Stinky”). She enjoys following recipes and playing games.

When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?

Some of my favorite memories were with my teaching partner, Mr. DeJonge. We co-taught Algebra, and we would accidentally match our clothes very often. Our students would call us out on it a lot, so by the end of my first year teaching, I bought us matching tropical shirts that we wore on the last day of school. 

Otherwise, my first year teaching was a lot of learning and growing with my students. I taught Project Lead the Way (6th-8th grades) as well as algebra. As the kids were learning about the design process, I was implementing it within my own teaching.

There was the time I was teaching and the sole of my shoe fell off. I challenged the kids to design a solution to either reattach the sole to my shoe using only materials in our supplies closet OR to design a shoe that wouldn’t allow for that to happen. The results were amazing. Kids are so creative.

What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?

In terms of building relationships with students: Students can teach you anything, so be open to it. I strongly believe that I became the teacher that I am because I opened up to criticism from students. I ask my students what works for them and what doesn’t. They are very (almost brutally) honest with me. Moreover, they can teach you about things you may have been clueless to. One of my favorite memories was when a student was helping me clean my classroom, and it was Ramadan. He talked to me about how his family celebrates, and he allowed me to ask questions without judgment. One of my friends who works at a high school had him as a student several years later, and I said, “Ask him if he remembers teaching me about Ramadan!!” And he laughed and said he did.

In terms of working with colleagues, find people who will support you and give you opportunities to grow, even in places you would least expect it. I worked summer school four years in a row, and each year, I bonded with teachers I would never have met otherwise. I expanded my circle and observed and learned what worked and what didn’t. Ultimately, I learned to be myself and to hone different skills.

In terms of curriculum, you’re not going to get it right immediately. I was lucky to teach and reteach curriculum every term, so finding my own personal teaching style was a fun experiment. If you can, show up and do the best you can at that time. In teaching school, you are given so many strategies. Take them one at a time. Maybe every week, you want to try something new. Maybe it’s every month. Or every unit. Pace yourself!

What inspired you to become a teacher?

I’ve wanted to teach kids since I was a kid. I actually wanted to be an architect and then move into teaching later in life, but the more I learned and studied, the clearer it became that my place was with kids.

How do you keep students engaged?

Fun! And choice! I try to turn lessons into games as much as possible, and when I can, I give students choice. Do you want to take a break now or power through? Do you want to play this game or that game? Do you want to practice reading or listening?

I also love telling students my failure stories. The more relevant they are to the content, the more engaged they are with it. I notice that they try to get it right or at least more right than I did when I was their age. It’s almost like they make it a goal to say they can be better than me at things. 

How do you show school spirit?

I always participate in spirit days or weeks, and when there is an opportunity to attend a game or a performance, I will show up, even if it is for just a moment.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?

When students tell me that they want to do something with what I’m teaching. For example, when I taught PLTW, many of my students would tell me that they wanted to become engineers when they grew up because of my class. Now in Spanish, students are asking me how they can be better language learners so that they can talk to their Spanish-speaking peers!

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?

We do a lot more work than just teaching. Everything that we are expected to do during our prep hours has to be pushed to after school, before school, or during the weekends. We also take on a lot of our student’s problems and worries. For some of our students, we’re not just their teachers, but we’re their sounding boards and their advice-givers. 

Why should middle school students take a foreign language?

All students should take a world language because it helps them to develop empathy and problem-solving skills. World languages help students see the world in through a different lens. On the first day of class, I will speak in the target language for the first ten minutes, and many of my English speakers feel very overwhelmed. Once I break that fourth wall and start speaking in English, I ask the students how it felt. Then I ask them how many of their peers don’t speak English at home but come to school and speak English in almost all of their classes. Oftentimes, kids have a moment of realization and understanding, and they get more excited to learn the language.

What’s the hardest part for them?

I think inferring meaning from context is very challenging for the students. They are very used to having the answers right away. Instead of guessing what the meaning is from the context clues, students are tempted to just Google translate everything. Instead of using their prior knowledge and connecting things that they know with the material, they will immediately ask, “How do you say…?” or “Can I use Google Translate?”

You’re involved in so many additional activities at Scarlett.  Webmaster, Yearbook Sponsor, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander Student Coalition Sponsor, Umbrella Club Sponsor. That’s a lot! Why do you do it, and how do you manage it?

Honestly, I do it for the students, and I stick with it for my own learning and growing. I love being challenged to think in different ways, and oftentimes, students will come to me with ideas, and we grow together and explore different subjects together. That’s how AAPI-SC was formed at Scarlett. A curious student reached out to me, and we made a plan. I also strongly believe in student empowerment. I give students smaller tasks, build up their confidence, and by the second week of the club or sport, students are the ones leading it and coaching newer members. It’s awesome to have these opportunities and to share responsibilities with students who are excited to grow and learn.

In your five years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning?

The most important thing I’ve learned about teaching is that mutual trust and respect go a very long way with middle schoolers. Relationships are important, but some students don’t want to form a relationship with their teachers. And that’s okay! Some just want to show up, do the work, learn the material, and move on, and the most they ask for is that they are given the opportunity to do so in a consistent and positive way. 

I have also learned that students might not respond to me in the same way others do. When I co-taught algebra, I could explain a concept a hundred different ways and a student might not understand, but my co-teacher would explain it once, and it would click. That didn’t mean that I was a bad teacher at all. It just looked different, and that’s okay!

What was always written on your report card in grade school?

“Anna is very quiet unless she feels comfortable. Then she doesn’t stop talking.”

Describe an average workday.  

Once I am in the building, I greet as many people as I can! I’ll walk down the hall, look into different classrooms, and say, “Goooood morning!” Then I just keep walking. Once I’m in my room, I finish up my first cup of coffee and review my lessons. Then we get rolling! I always greet the kids at the door in Spanish with their name, and with a hearty, “Okey-dokey, ¿estámos listos?” We start with our lessons! One of my favorite parts of my day is our daily collaborative meetings with the entire Language Acquisition team. It’s a fun time for us to discuss our students, our lessons, and our personal lives. After the last bell rings, I’m usually in the halls chatting or starting up one of my clubs or sports. It’s a good time.

Be honest. Which language do you think is prettier: English or Spanish?

Spanish is a BEAUTIFUL language! Everyone should learn it!

Which language do you prefer to use?

I like to codeswitch between the two, just to challenge the kids and to keep them on their toes.

What’s one of your hidden talents?

I am very good at keeping a joke going. The more ridiculous a joke is, the better.

What makes teaching at Scarlett unique?

Our student body is amazingly diverse and interesting, and I truly have some of the most incredible coworkers. I have learned so much from my colleagues, and it is one of the most welcoming places to work. We are consistently communicating and discussing our struggles, strategies, and successes. Not only is everyone highly professional, but we have all the fun. 

How do you spend your summers?

Every summer, I work in the Middle School Summer Challenge program. I started as a teacher in it, and I jumped into a leadership role during the first year of the pandemic. Last year, I also taught in Scarlett’s SLA program. Outside of teaching summer school, I love to travel. I’ve been trying to get out to National Parks as often as possible.

What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life?

Professionally, I’m so excited about writing meaningful curriculum that centers identity in Spanish. I highlighted Afrolatinx people during Black History Month and am centering famous Hispanic women now that it’s Women’s History Month. I’m framing it so that students are describing personalities and physical descriptions. It’s really exciting to me!  It’s so different from teaching Project Lead the Way, and I am loving the challenges that come with it.

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