Sandra Estrada, an alumni teacher from Ánimo Leadership Charter High School, is committed to giving back to the Lennox community that set her up for success by creating positive classroom experiences for the next generation of leaders. Through her academic experiences, she relates to her students, gains their trust, and upholds respect in the classroom.
Estrada attended school exclusively in Lennox, starting with Felton Elementary, Lennox Middle School, and then made her way to Ánimo Leadership High School. After graduating from Ánimo Leadership, Estrada became the first person in her family to attend college. Estrada, a first-generation Latina grad, studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she majored in Spanish. During her time at UCLA, she participated as a Green Dot University Mentor to encourage other recent Green Dot grads who also planned to attend UCLA.
Estrada contemplated her future as a college student, but found her career direction in her Ánimo Leadership Spanish teacher Mr. Villanueva's words to consider teaching Spanish. Inspired, Estrada started her master's and teaching credential at Stanford University. Just after graduation, Estrada interviewed with Ánimo Leadership, recognizing familiar faces in her interview, including Sarah. Ducker (Assistant Principal), Catherine Perez (Former Principal), and Danielle Berger (Principal). She ended the interview with a job offer to teach ninth-grade Spanish.
We sat down with Sandra Estrada to discuss her experience as a student at Ánimo Leadership and what made her return to Ánimo Leadership as a teacher.
Could you describe your high school experience? What made you come back as a teacher?
My high school experience was unique because of Ánimo Leadership's size and rich history. Like our campus being the first established school [in Green Dot California]. When I attended Leadership, there was this big pride in attending the school. I cried when I wasn't accepted to Ánimo Leadership because it was such a big deal. I was waitlisted and devastated, but I eventually got in.
We didn't have big football games or cheerleading squads, but we had a tight-knit community.
It's a great feeling to be part of such a fantastic community. Ánimo Leadership is an exemplary school for all other Green Dot schools. Again, it's community-focused and community-based, not just for the teachers. It's the staff as well. For example, our parent coordinator sets up college classes for families at Leadership. These classes are fantastic experiences that are for more than just students: It's for their families. Ánimo leadership is a home base for the community of Lennox. Those are the reasons why I came back to Leadership.
How would you describe your strengths as a teacher?
The respect that I have for students is crucial to me. I hold very high standards for my students because I want them to hold themselves accountable once they leave my classroom. I learned to respect them as human beings first. Respecting students is something I take very seriously. Yet, I don't let certain things fly. But I also like to play fun music, so they'd probably say I am respectful and fun.
What are your most memorable moments as a teacher?
You only know how education is once you're working with students one-on-one on the ground. My first time in a room by myself – full of teenagers was my first teacher moment where I was just kind of like, wow, there's a lot, and I had a 33-person class.
Another teacher moment was when I had a student thank me for making them feel safe. As a teacher, the most important thing is having a safe space and having all students feel loved and comfortable. When students thank me for that, it means a lot, and it feels like my work is valuable and worth it because sometimes I'm so exhausted, and I'm like, Why did I choose this career? But I am reminded of how important it is to be a teacher. Sometimes you don't even know when you're making a difference, right?
What would you say is the importance of being an alumni teacher?
The most important part about being a homegrown teacher is that I can connect with students on a much deeper level and connect with them. Those connections and relations make students feel more safe or comfortable talking to me about certain things. It feels like more than a parent-teacher-student relationship. It feels like a family.
I know what students have been going through—what it feels like to have a dress code. I can also help them navigate high school in Lennox and at a small charter school. We have conversations in class where students ask me questions all the time that they wouldn't be able to ask other teachers who didn't come to the school or don't live in the area. It's just like a different, more profound connection with the parents. I came here because I know how exceptional students are. I try my best to not only bring resources but also to open student opportunities.
How has Ánimo Leadership's support been a stepping stone in your teaching career?
The Leadership staff is very supportive. As a student, I felt supported in every single one of my steps, in any accomplishment. No matter how big, no matter how small, they made a note of it. That's what every single Leadership teacher did for me and not only for me but for my peers.
During my path to college, I was in contact with teachers from Leadership, who helped me a lot. Ms. Stine (Ánimo Leadership’s English teacher) would make it a point to see me, check in on me, and ask how I'm doing. Leadership felt like home. So when I decided to teach, I knew if I were going to teach somewhere, it would be Leadership. Thankfully, it all worked in my favor.
What words of encouragement do you have for future teachers?
It's going to feel very hard, especially at the beginning. But if you keep working through it and reminding yourself why you came in the first place, it shouldn't be rooted in the love of your subject, community, or human beings. In the end, it is a very fulfilling career. It's a place to feel love, be loved, and give love.
Still, just like anything, you need to keep moving forward, be kind to yourself, and give love to those who need it. That's what I came back for in my community because I know there's a significant need here. And it was vital that I returned and gave back to the community that has given me so much.