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The Light at the End of the Tunnel
  • Education
Romaka Yniguez

My career in education started in 2010 when I was a summer Lummi Language Instructor for Northwest Indian College. I wasn’t supposed to be a teacher. My degree had been geared towards Language Research and Preservation, rather than instruction. There is nothing more intimidating for a twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college than staring into a class whose youngest student is thirty-three. The Native American Tribal Language class was filled with adults and elders looking to reclaim a part of themselves that had been lost over the last century and a half. From a cultural perspective, it should have been reversed, with me sitting at the table and learning from these elders. 

Feeling lost, I turned to my mentor, Tribal Elder Willy Jones, Sr. He smiled and advised me, “Teach them the same way you were taught, and be the good teacher they never had.” 

I scrambled to learn everything I could about pedagogy. I modeled my teaching style on favorite teachers and professors: men and women who loved their work, were passionate about their subjects, and made learning fun. Despite my frustration, I leaned into excitement, enthusiasm, and drive, as I expect every new teacher does. I was out to change the world, and I would make a difference.  

Thirteen years later, I’m still teaching. I’ve gone through the phases of enchantment, disenchantment, and now in my first year at The Saint Constantine School, a re-enchantment with teaching.

To paint a picture of this journey, I’ll explain that in the wider United States, education has a professional lifespan of only three years on average. Four of mine were spent at NWIC, nine in Texas Public Education. A quote from Blade Runner comes to mind: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t even believe.” We all have, as teachers who’ve survived more than a single year in the classroom. 

I’ve witnessed stories of courage, heroism, perseverance, as well as horror, that put Hollywood to shame. I’ve had a student, homebound by chemotherapy treatments, call into class and ask to be put on speaker so he could hear the History lecture on the Mongols. I’ve had a student say, “Yo Mr. Y., I’m gettin’ beat out of the gang later today, so can I turn in my map of Africa after I get out of the hospital?” I’ve had students confide in me because I was the stable adult in their lives. I’ve had students physically assault me.  

This comes with the territory. As educators, we do our best for the students—all of them, the good, the bad, and everything in between. For me, it goes back to what Willy Jones, Sr. advised the first day I stepped into teaching: “Be the good teacher they never had.” In that sense, I never lost that new teacher drive. I’ve fought hard over the years to keep this optimism, energy, and enthusiasm. 

Around year five, I wondered if I was cut out for the job. By year seven, I was burning out. In my last year of public education, I promised myself I’d get out. Though I’d lasted longer than most, the stress, threats of violence, and miasma of despair were all-encompassing in the public schools I’d taught in. I’d been too long in the trenches of public education, with its standardized testing, homogenized lesson delivery, contradictory standards, and soul-devouring drudgery. 

Post the lockdowns of 2020, there was a point when I was no longer expected to be a teacher. I was, in a sense, a prison warden, and a facilitator of the online standardized testing model. Computers and curriculum experts in Austin taught class, while my presence served to break up fights and maintain a totalitarian’s control of the room. This went against everything I believe for the purpose of education. I railed against the system, trying to inject passion and honesty, trying to deliver History in an engaging way, only to be slapped down. The message was clear: check the boxes, comply with orders, ensure students score 70% or above. I wondered, is this what teaching is? Is this what it’s come to? Trying to live up to my ideal in the midst of situational reality no longer seemed like fighting the good fight. It seemed like self-delusion.  

Then I got a chance to stay in the game. I’d heard that The Saint Constantine School was seeking a History teacher. I’d heard about the school, and had been submitting my resumé annually. When my first daughter was born, I already knew I’d be sending her to TSCS, even if it meant picking up an extra job or starving to do it. I refused to consider letting her attend public school, because I know too much about it. In honesty, I felt it was an uphill battle even to be considered for the role. Many of my TSCS colleagues are experts in their fields and have advanced degrees to prove it. I’m a B.A. in Linguistics, with an amateur love of History and storytelling to recommend me for the post. TSCS gave me a shot, and I gave them my all. 

Now, three months shy of completing my first year as a TSCS teacher, I couldn’t be happier. It’s felt like reading through The Divine Comedy. In hindsight, those years in public education have honed me into a teacher worthy of being here. This place has been the answer to a decade of prayer, a living reality of what education could and should be. I find myself occasionally struggling with what I call “Public Ed PTSD,” where the absence of toxicity in the school culture sometimes causes me stress over the lack of stress; or entering a kind of culture shock as I adjust to my new home and all its wonderful alienness from my previous public school experience. 

At present, I’m enjoying my life as the zany History teacher who requires his students to retell the stories they learn in class as homework, and write papers as to whether they believe the American Colonists were justified in declaring independence from Britain. You are welcome to stop by the art gallery that is our classroom. Sit and listen to the stories as we draw maps and build castles. Or, join the Medieval Fencing Club, where I’m training a gifted cadre of students to become knights, using arms manuals from the 14th and 15th centuries. We’re having fun here, because TSCS has rekindled what I thought I’d been losing. 

God bless this place, and all of us here in it.