Erika Gamez – Kinder & First-Grade Teacher
It’s the time when foundations are built. Students in the first years of elementary school learn to read and write – the seeds of intellectual engagement and curiosity are planted and nurtured. These youngest students also learn social skills, how to communicate and resolve conflicts with their peers.
Erika Gamez joined Dell City ISD this year as the district’s kindergarten and first-grade teacher, and she’s giving the elementary school’s youngest students those fundamentals.
“I want to know for sure the kindergarteners are ready for first, and that the first-graders are prepared for second grade,” Gamez said. “At whatever level a student starts, I want to show progress in each student, to create a learning environment that affects all students in a positive way – academically, socially and emotionally.”
Gamez has nine students – four kindergarteners and five first-graders. Literacy – the basics of reading and reading comprehension – are the cornerstone of classroom activities.
Reading is “cross-curricular,” Gamez said – a student’s success in math, in social studies and in science all depend on having good reading-comprehension strategies. With kindergarteners, that means “getting down to basics” – teaching students to identify letters and sounds. Gamez builds up students’ “sight words” – words they can identify by sight. First graders learn to identify word and fact “families,” and develop their writing skills.
There is a basic threshold in literacy that all young students need to meet, but “differentiated instruction” is also central to Gamez’ approach. Good teaching, she said, isn’t just about “equity” – making sure all students reach a single standard – but about growth, ensuring that sure each student is challenged and receives the individualized attention they need to progress. Gamez said that having the time and space to give students that individual attention is one of the great benefits of the Dell City School’s small class sizes.
Gamez teaches lessons, but giving students opportunities to explore and collaborate, to drive their own learning, is also an important part of her classroom. Students work in reading and writing “centers,” and the learning there is “self-driven,” Gamez said. Students will take on the role of “captain” or “teacher for the day,” leading their peers through the rules and goals for each activity.
Gamez has previous experience working with deaf students, and she incorporates gestures and signing into her teaching. She said that using signs is especially helpful for her English-learner students, but that “anybody benefits from learning sign language.”
And as anyone who visits Gamez’ classroom or passes her and her students in the school hallways will learn, music is a constant. Students sing what they’re learning. They sing to line up for recess, and there are songs when students feel frustrated or encounter a particularly difficult lesson.
“Everything I do is with music,” Gamez said. “That is my key – everything is a song.”
This is Gamez’ second year as a full-time teacher – she obtained her certification last year, through the Region 19 Education Service Center in El Paso, while she was teaching kindergarten at Ysleta ISD. The Region 19 training was a rigorous one, and Gamez said the program put a strong emphasis on classroom management, stressing that “a student won’t pick up the content if there are behavior issues in the classroom.”
The key to classroom management, Gamez said, is keeping students engaged. When there are problems, Gamez takes students aside for “one-on-one conversations.” The basic philosophy is to “treat students like human beings,” Gamez said, and to recognize that, like adults, children have good and bad days, and bring whatever is happening in their lives outside school into the classroom.
“Our job is to teach the students to overcome those obstacles,” Gamez said, “to have them feel better when they come into class. I want them to be confident, to feel good about themselves.”
That social and emotional growth is vital, Gamez said. Gamez said songs and other resources from PBS Kids are valuable tools in social-skills development, and Gamez works with students in a “dramatic play center.” The play center is a place for pretend, where students explore “real-world kinds of situations” that push them to think about “how to be a good citizen, how to use their manners, how to speak to others.”
“They get to talk things through, so you can have them think on their own about what they should do,” Gamez said. “Sometimes they’ll be arguing amongst themselves – but that’s the perfect time to have a learning moment.
“They have to develop independence for themselves,” she said. “I get to be the referee, but they have to talk amongst themselves, and get to understand one another and open those doors of communication. Then they have strategies they can fall back on, so that they remember how to behave around others, how to treat others and how to treat themselves.”
Gamez is a native El Pasoan, and she loves the culture, the cuisine and the sense of community of her hometown. She graduated from UTEP with a degree in history. But the seeds of a teaching career were planted early.
Gamez’ mother worked for 19 years as the secretary at El Paso’s Bonham Elementary, where Gamez herself was a student. But then, in her 40s, Gamez’ mother went back to school and completed a bachelor’s degree in education, becoming the first member of Gamez’ family to earn a college degree.
Gamez’ mother was motivated by her experience as a parent. Gamez said her brother “probably would have qualified for GT [gifted and talented],” but wasn’t being challenged or stimulated at school – instead of excelling, Gamez said, he became “frustrated and bored.” Watching her son’s needs go unmet, Gamez’ mother decided to become a teacher – one that would challenge and nurture students as individuals. Last year, Gamez’ mother was selected “teacher of the year” at Fannin Elementary, at El Paso ISD.
“She didn’t want school to be a boring place – she wanted to be one of those inspirational teachers,” Gamez said of her mother. “I just strive to be her.”
After completing her history degree, Gamez began substitute teaching in El Paso, and had several long-term substitute positions. She worked with pre-K, kinder and first-grade students, including deaf students, and after being “immersed” in early education, she decided to seek certification and a full-time position in the field.
Gamez had been working at Ysleta ISD when Barbara Amaya, the director of the regional Education Service Center, told her about an opening at Dell City ISD. Gamez was hesitant to leave El Paso, her “comfort zone.” But she was inspired by Amaya’s description of the Dell City school and community – the welcoming environment, the small class sizes.
And she said the reality has exceeded her expectations.
“It’s amazing to have small-group instruction, consistently throughout the day,” Gamez said. “I feel like I get more one-on-one time with the students. This is what teachers ask for in the bigger districts.”
Gamez is the mother of two – a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. She spends the weekdays in Dell City – and being apart from her husband and children is a challenge.
But she’s loving her work with Dell City kinder and first-grade students.
“I tell my husband that I’m very comfortable here,” Gamez said. “I don’t feel like I’m working. None of this happens overnight, of course, but I’m having such a good time – I didn’t think it would run so smoothly. I really love my job.”