For Rhonda Peña, teaching isn’t a profession, it’s a calling.
Peña was recently honored as the Region One Elementary Teacher of the Year. She has now been named one of six finalists for 2019 Texas Teacher of the Year.
She will be called for an interview on Sept. 13 in Austin, and the final selection will be made on Sept. 14. The awards program is facilitated by the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA).
A 5th grade math teacher at Bryan Elementary School, Peña has been with the Mission Consolidated Independent School District for 25 years, and has been teaching for 28. She credits God and her family for her achievements so far.
“The most important thing to me is that it gives recognition to our profession and also to our district and Bryan Elementary,” Peña said. “This is my home, and this is where I’ll stay until I retire.”
Peña was awarded the H-E-B Excellence in Education Lifetime Achievement Award last year. She said the announcements are still shocking and exciting.
“It means the world to be recognized,” Peña said. “It’s not just my recognition, it’s recognition for our district, and for our school.”
Peña originally moved to the Rio Grande Valley from her home state of Minnesota, in order to pursue teaching. Her original plan was to move back after one year.
“I grew up in a big family, so they were always encouraging me to learn new things,” Peña said. “As far as getting into math, I credit that to my brothers. My family… they were my first teachers. They gave me the love of learning.”
Peña credits her mother for her love of reading. Having big family reunions led to her enjoying babysitting and being around children.
“All of those things kind of attributed to my choice,” Peña said. “I always say that teaching is not a profession, it’s a calling.”
“I know that God called me to be a teacher,” Peña added. “He granted me with a lot of patience, and just a genuine love of children and wanting the best for them.”
After meeting her husband, who is from Mission, she decided to stay. Peña found an opening at Bryan Elementary and settled in the Valley.
According to Peña, the support from the Mission CISD is what keeps her in the area.
“From campus, to administration, the teachers themselves here at Bryan, we are very close,” Peña said. “Whenever you need anything in the district, the coordinators and central office support you, you just need to ask. We are all one team.”
New technology and developments in curriculum have kept Peña motivated as a teacher over the years.
“I’m very interested in new things with technology,” Peña said. “I never get tired of learning, I never get in a rut.”
Peña tries to change things up every year and adjust her style so she can be the best teacher for Bryan Elementary students and keep them excited to learn.
“I never do the same thing every year,” Peña said. “I try to make my lessons different just so I don’t get bored with it, because if I get bored with it, then the kids will.”
Seeing the “aha moments” in students is, for Peña, the most rewarding thing about her calling.
“When they walk into the classroom, a lot of them are afraid of math,” Peña said. “You can see the fear in them, but then when they get it and start beaming, that just warms my heart.”
Because she teaches 5th graders, Peña also has to prepare them for the next level in their educational journey: middle school. This involves instruction and emotional development.
“We’re always trying to build their self-esteem,” Peña said. “Especially with the 5th graders going into junior high, they need to have that strong confidence.”
Although she enjoys her career, Peña says it isn’t always simple or easy.
“You can’t just be a teacher from 7:30 to 3:30, it goes beyond that,” Peña said. “So you have to be dedicated and willing to do things outside of the normal working hours.”
“I’ve managed to handle it [the time frame] as best as I can,” Peña continued. “Even though my husband says I go to sleep too late each night.”
Peña’s teaching style is self-described as hands-on and engaging. Her classroom desks are organized into centers so students don’t become uninterested in the lesson, and she implements student-led lessons and activities.
“The children need to see the concepts in math concretely,” Peña said. “They can’t just go to the abstract.”
Building relationships with her students is what Peña considers vital to being a successful teacher and motivator.
“That’s how you can earn their respect, they can see that you care about them not just as a student but as a person,” Peña said. “Building a relationship is very important for teachers, and never giving up.”
Peña said keeping students motivated and ready for class is something all teachers strive toward, and that the MCISD motto of “changing the world” is what they are doing daily.
“It’s more than just the test scores and all of that that we hear on the news,” Peña said. “We genuinely care about our students and we want them to have a happy successful life.”