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Teacher Spotlight: KIPP Corazon’s Michelle Torres on preparing students to navigate the system better than she did, championing restorative justice and appreciating her trusting parents

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | November 20, 2019



This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Michelle Torres

Michelle Torres never planned to become a teacher but her own struggles as a college student made her realize that through teaching, she could help young students to advocate for themselves early on and that convinced her to be in the classroom.

“I want to see these kids become successful, and get the resources, and be able to navigate the system better than I did,” said Torres.

As a founding teacher at KIPP Corazón Academy, an elementary and middle charter school in Southeast Los Angeles, Torres lead the creation of the school’s restorative justice advisory class in the school to help her students navigate a system she believes often plays against them.

“I find this class to be of great value because it allows my students to hear about counterstories that are not shared in our history books and allows them to feel that their voices matter and their stories do too,” Torres said.

The majority of her students are Latino and live in low-income households like she did growing up. Her father was deported to Mexico when she was in fifth grade. Then her mother, who was also undocumented, became the family’s sole breadwinner and while they struggled financially, Torres and her three siblings focused on their education. But she, the youngest of the four, was the only one who made it to college.

“When I was offered the chance to go to UC, I knew I had to take it,” she said. “One, for myself and for my family, but two, for my brother, who didn’t have access to it because he had to help support our family.”

As a Latina college student, Torres said she had to face many challenges she wasn’t ready for. After switching her major, she graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in Chicano studies and a minor in applied psychology. Now as a teacher, Torres says she feels a responsibility to help her students and their families be ready for some of those challenges, like overcoming stereotypes.

“I loved the experience of working with families and students who are of similar background as me. I felt like I was able to build really strong relationships with the students and families,” said Torres, who began teaching at a KIPP school in San Diego in 2014 through Teach for America. “One, because not only do I look like them and I speak their language, but culturally we were just very similar.”

LA School Report asked Torres about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as her goals for the 2019-20 school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why is it so important for you to teach your students to advocate for themselves?

Advocacy is one of our biggest values. So we (at KIPP Corazon) have four values. That’s advocacy, curiosity, purpose and pride. Those are the things we focus on here, like advocating for the community and stuff like that. We work around ethnic studies and about integration.

As we add more grade levels, we want to work more on restorative justice, have that space for teachers to teach social-emotional lessons as well as cultural lessons. We have circles, it happens every day. We start off with a game and then we start with a question … and so getting in that circle, we’re able to address (questions) and have conversations. A lot of times, kids come into education with a mindset like, ‘Oh, I’m a bad kid,’ and there’s no such thing as a bad kid. There are bad actions that people decide to make, right. Now with these circles and community circles, it’s our responsibility to figure out why did this action happen in the first place. Because at the end, people are out here … they want to try their best and be good for everyone else and themselves. So we have to figure out, why are you starting actions and behaviors happening because there might be something behind the action that’s really going on. And you need to figure out the community. How could we support each other?

Why did you start a restorative justice advisory class in your school?

I knew that our principal was very passionate about restorative justice. So this is a restorative justice block (of classes), it’s pretty much an advisory class on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays of about 60 minutes and we do a lot of social-emotional learning lessons. So students can learn how to talk about their emotions in a more productive way. And we also had different lessons where we talked about the different identities and nationalities we come from. We talk about their culture, about other cultures and communities and we celebrate that.

What keeps you motivated to keep teaching?

After being in this role for five years, you become a cheerleader for your students because they come with so many social-emotional needs, so many traumatic experiences that sometimes they don’t want to do their part. So you as an educator don’t have to take it personal, it’s not that they hate you, it’s more like there’s something else going on.

I think as educators it’s our responsibility to figure out what is it that the student needs and meet them there. Because I feel like that was the biggest mistake I made my first year. I was like ‘All these kids are against me. They don’t want to do the work. They think my class is boring. They hate it.’ I took a lot of things personal, but in reality, all these kids had so many things that they were coming in with every single day. I just needed to figure out how can we socially emotionally support these students and make them feel safer at school so that they can excel.

I really appreciate that in the community that I serve parents really trust teachers. They have so much faith in education. I know a lot of parents really rely on the teacher. So, I feel a lot of pressure, but it’s good pressure to make sure that I need to do whatever the parents need because at the end of the day, we have to share the work together to make sure that we support that student. So I think that’s something that I really value and I appreciate, that demographic in the community I’m serving right now.

What do you think is most misunderstood about your job? 

A lot of times when I think of other people who are not in the education system, they right away think about, ‘Oh my gosh, you have so much grading to do. How do you have time to grade? Oh my gosh, do you have to do lesson planning? How do you know what you’re going to teach?’ It’s more of like (people being focused on) the actual concept and academics of teaching, but it’s way more than that.

What makes you feel accomplished as a teacher? 

To be honest, I think every year there’s always something different, but I can share something that recently happened to me that just kind of re-energized me and refueled me. I went to San Diego two weeks ago and I got to see my fifth-grade class graduate from eighth grade and then moving onto high school. I didn’t tell them I was going to go. So when I showed up and after they were promoted, they just saw me there in the hallway. I congratulated them and many of them cried and hugged me and they were just so happy to see me and being there and supporting their next move and their next change because they’re all going to high school now. That made me realize, this is why I’m here because I want to see these kids become successful and get the resources and be able to navigate the system better than I did. Because they need as much support as possible to continue moving forward.

What can the school districts, the state, do better to support teachers in being successful?

I can’t speak on the school district because I’ve never worked at a district school. The past five years I’ve only worked for charter schools. Something that I feel like this organization, and why I continue to stay in this organization for now, is because they have teacher coaches that will observe you once a week. And they give you feedback on your teaching practices. And as teachers, there’s always new things going on in the world and there are new students every year, so I really appreciate that because it allows me to get better at my practice and the pedagogy behind teaching.

Also, something I really appreciate about this network is that they have these teaching coaching cycles where, not only do you get feedback once a week on your lesson plan, but you also get one-on-one meetings where your manager or coach provides feedback on things that you can improve on as an educator. And for me, I feel like that’s the reason why I continue to stay in this network, because it allows me to grow. At the end of the day, it’s not only about me growing as an educator. The reason I take all of this is because I want my kids to grow. I want them to feel like they’re excelling.

What can parents do better to support teachers?

Sometimes parents might feel a little uncomfortable telling us what really is going on at home or sharing what is really going on with the child. I think the more transparent family members are able to be with their teachers the better, but you can’t expect parents to be as transparent as possible to the teacher if they don’t feel like they have that kind of relationship with you.

So something that I feel like I found is really valuable in my teaching experience is when parents come up to me, call me or text me and say, ‘Hey, like my child had a nightmare. They’ve been having an anxiety attack. That’s why they’re coming in this way.’ That helps me to better support that child when they’re in my classroom. So I think as long as family members and parents are more transparent about situations that might be going on at home with a student, it will allow us to feel more equipped to support that student.

How have the recent attacks toward charter schools made you feel? What would you like the public to know about how it is to be a charter school teacher these days? 

I mean, we’re all educators working hard. I think educators are in this work because they genuinely care about students’ growth and students’ learning and making sure that we support the students to become successful. We’re here to serve the students. I don’t believe in this charter versus district school tension. I personally feel like we’re all working really hard to make sure that our community and our future leaders get the education they deserve in order to navigate the systems that are sometimes against them.

And so for me, I just want the public to know that as an educator, it doesn’t matter if I’m a charter school teacher or a traditional public school teacher. I’m here to serve my students so that they can have the required resources and are able to be really navigate the system in order to get to where they want to be.

What’s your main goal for the new school year?

I’m going to continue working on this restorative justice stuff and I’m going to have it for the fourth- and fifth-graders. So I just want to make sure that I’ve provided students with the proper tools to be able to talk about their emotions and address situations in a way where they’re able to share in a space where they feel safe.

The second goal that I have for myself, talking about academics, last year I had a lot of students who came into the school who hated reading and ELA was their least favorite class. And as an ELA teacher, my goal is to continue to make sure that the love for literacy was happening and that students love reading, but that they can actually continue reading and building their reading foundational skills. So I want more kids to love reading.

I’m really excited this year because we’re going to do a writing block and I’ll be the writing teacher as well. So I want to make sure that I can build that love for reading that I did last year with my fifth-grade students who are going to be sixth-graders now. Continue doing that with my incoming fifth-graders, but also build the love for writing as well. Because when students share their stories and their narrative — and writing is such an important tool for them to be able to share the experiences — that I want students to feel like this is just as valuable as reading.

That’s pretty awesome. It’s perfect, getting kids to love reading. It’s needed. We all struggle with that, but we all want that for kids, right?

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