Growing up in the Bronx during the height of the 1980s crack epidemic, Elsa Batista and her sisters quickly developed an appreciation for the value of an education. Batista and her family immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was just six years old. They carried little money in their pockets and got by with limited English speaking skills.
“When you grow up in that environment…. You really don’t know what the future will hold. Although we grew up happy and our mother kept us safe, there was always a looming fear of ‘are we going to be safe in the neighborhood?’” she said. “We knew that we had to continue to do well in school because that was going to be our way of changing our future.”
Like all of her sisters, Batista said she held onto her Dominican culture, but also learned to embrace the English language and culture from the Bronx. Batista thrived in public and Catholic school and pursued higher education. Although she went away to college, she came back home to the Bronx following her graduation to work as an Assistant Director of Student Activities for Leadership and Commuter Student Association at Fordham University, Rose Hill Campus. While there, Batista was able to work with college students who wanted to start clubs and learn about leadership development. She enjoyed helping them turn their ideas into reality.
She loved working with her students at Fordham and after two years there, decided to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a public school teacher for younger students.
“I started teaching in the Bronx, and that's how I ended up in the school that I attended when I first came to the U.S. And it was amazing,” Batista said, adding that she wanted to see the same transformation she had experienced in her students.
“I helped develop student leaders. I had a cultural dance club and we performed in front of the entire school,” she said. Batista remembers a pair of fraternal twins who were able to demonstrate traditional South Asian dance routines to their classmates.
“They taught us that dance, and I could tell they felt empowered. They began to believe in themselves and saw they could contribute to the class. I take advantage of any opportunity I can to assign roles where students can be in charge like this.”
Batista said that when she began her teaching career, her second grade school teacher was about to retire. Batista was able to thank her for helping her learn English. And in one of the most inspiring moments of her career, Batista said she invited an important leader from the Dominican Republic to talk to her students and share a part of her culture and history with them.
“I'm glad I was able to give back my five years to the school that brought me in and taught me,” she said. “And I think that I'm able to sprinkle that experience through my teachings now.”
Because it had always been her dream to become a K-12 teacher and to start a family, Batista and her family decided to leave the Bronx and moved to Connecticut to pursue the world of educational and social opportunities outside of New York. She’s been a Spanish teacher at Martin Kellogg Middle School in Newington for the past seven years.
There are different demographics in her current school district than in the Bronx where she taught, with a majority white population and fewer Latino and Black students. Though the school district is working diligently to hire more teachers from many diverse backgrounds, Batista is one of a few Latina teachers in her district.
That’s why, she said, she sees her role as a teacher as an opportunity to talk about the merits of diversity, showcasing the varied life and cultural experiences students carry with them to the classroom.
“Going to school in the Bronx, there were students that looked like me in all shapes and colors. I didn’t use the word minority,” she said.
“I feel that me being here is telling a little brown girl, regardless of her culture and race, that she too could be a teacher or a cool human like me."
Throughout her Spanish curriculum, she also includes lessons where students talk about their own traditions like how to prepare foods, such as curry, empanadas, or perogies.
“You have students who will say, ‘this is how I make it,’ and some might talk about when they eat it with their family.” These discussions promote connections between Batista and her students. “They feel comfortable sharing more about themselves such as why some fast.”
“There are so many opportunities that we have as educators to influence children or at least open their eyes and ears to the world around them,” Batista said. “They’re going to build up their Spanish language skills, but they're also going to remember that a teacher once told them that they're amazing, they're special and their names are unique and awesome.”
And Batista said there’s been support from her school to continue this type of teaching, because there’s a need for it. Along with her colleagues' collaboration, she got approval from school leadership to get together a group of students who created and stuck decals with positive and inspirational quotes on all of the staircases around the school. The aim of this project was to uplift students but it ended up helping lift teachers up too.
And they even started a Care Closet for students who may need supplies such as toilet paper, hygiene products, or gently used clothing. This project, she said, hits particularly close to home, because she didn’t grow up with many resources and as an adult, she understands that a student cannot learn if he or she does not have some of their basic needs met. Next, she wants to coordinate with a homeless or local women’s shelter, so the school can donate whatever isn’t being used from the closet.
“The project was a way for us to teach the students the beauty of giving and receiving from their own community,” she said. “That's what I would like to continue to do – teach the culture and how beautiful it is to accept whoever you are and wherever you're from. Just continue to build connections and leadership skills both in and outside of the classroom.”
“And hopefully use my experience being a Latina, a woman, and a mother in a positive way.”