Kiria Cruz Wang

English As Second Language Teacher, Bridgeport Public Schools

The small tropical town of Barceloneta, on the northern edge of Puerto Rico, is dotted by colorful Spanish colonial homes, bright fruit trees, and lively music. But for native Kiria Cruz Wang, Barceloneta was characterized by something else – the deep connections that community members build with one another, which was an important aspect of growing up here. 

Some of Cruz Wang’s most impactful experiences of these relationships were through her grandfather, a veteran who became a local teacher because he wanted to help people and his community.

“I graduated from the school where my grandfather used to teach, and while I was there or later in life while walking around downtown, people would stop me and ask me if I was his granddaughter and tell me how much they loved him, or that he was their favorite teacher. Hearing the stories of people who worked with him or were actually his students made me feel so humble and happy that I was part of his family. It made me want to be someone like that in the future.”

A significant experience during a concert, with the beat of conga drums filling the air, affirmed her aspiration to be a teacher herself. “I was in middle school, or younger, and I saw a girl who was older than I was – she was in a wheelchair,” Cruz Wang said. The girl was enchanted by the congas, and Cruz Wang did not want the girl’s physical and intellectual disabilities to hold her back from experiencing the music the same way she could.

 “She just wanted to listen to the music. Oh my god, I tried to carry her. I was trying to bring her closer to the stage where the band was playing.” The feeling that it brought Cruz Wang to see how the girl’s joy grew as they connected with one another and as the girl realized that, with Cruz Wang’s help, she was getting closer to the band, was where it all really started for her.

“Right after I told my mom that I wanted to be a teacher,” Cruz Wang said. “The experience of seeing someone with special needs and wanting to help her… lit the candle for me.”

Cruz Wang taught English for four years in Puerto Rico before she moved to the states. Today, she is an English As Second Language teacher at Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where there is a large bilingual community.

As a teacher, Cruz Wang says her goal is to bring that spirit of creating meaningful connections to the students in her classroom – especially when it comes to serving those who may need extra support to catch up to their peers.

“My students might not want to learn English at first, because many kids come into the country because they don’t have another option,” Cruz Wang said.  “Their parents might bring them or send them, and they see learning English as a task, not as an opportunity to help them be successful in their lives.”

Building great relationships with my students is one of the most important things. I try to make the kids laugh, and to be someone they know they can talk to about their personal experiences.

Kiria Cruz Wang

"Because I create special bonds with my students, my class becomes meaningful for them. And having students saying ‘you're the best teacher, I love your class, it was my favorite in high school’...it's big for me. Because at the end of the day, I don’t want to be a good teacher for other people to recognize me. I want to be a good teacher for my students.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of distance learning made school even more difficult for some students. Absenteeism has been a significant challenge, especially for students with special learning needs.  “It was very challenging for all of us because it was hybrid. So I had kids in front of me and I had kids at the same time online. And you have to work with everybody's needs.”

Cruz Wang drew inspiration from her upbringing to navigate the challenges of the pandemic. She focused on continuing to make meaningful connections with her students, truly listening to what they were experiencing and feeling, and celebrating moments of joy and success throughout the year.

“I've never thought of myself as an amazing teacher because I know that we can always grow,” she said. “But when I think about teaching and I think about my students, it always fills my heart.”