Nataneal Rodriguez – Fourth- & Fifth-Grade Teacher
Fourth and fifth grades are a completion, and a threshold, as students round out their elementary-school years and look ahead to middle school and high school. They move beyond the basics to become sophisticated readers and critical thinkers. But as middle school looms, social concerns can overshadow academic ones.
Nataneal Rodriguez teaches Dell City ISD's fourth- and fifth-graders. It's his first year of teaching, and he's striving to insure that his students integrate what they've learned in elementary, and are equipped for the next phase.
“This is when abstract thought really begins to kick in,” Rodriguez said. “And that's one of the main focuses in the classroom, to develop critical thinking. It's fascinating to see that complexity and creativity come in.”
Rodriguez wants his students to not only remember facts, or understand what they study, but to evaluate and analyze what they read, to be able to apply scientific and mathematical concepts. A key to that growth, he said, is small-group instruction. Students need opportunities to engage with one another.
“What happens among the students is very important,” Rodriguez said. “You have conversations, and you ask questions of your classmates and partners. If you're reading a story, break it down, analyze it: What's the setting? What are the conflicts? And it's not just discussion. Don't just tell your peer or partner – write it down, and exchange what you've written.”
Rodriguez has seven students in his classroom. That makes small-group work and one-on-one attention possible. Though it's a small group, the students are at very different developmental stages – academically, emotionally and socially. Rodriguez said he is constantly “impressed by how tolerant and patient and caring they are” with one another, and that “there is no bullying, ever.”
Rodriguez teaches English-language arts and math in the mornings. Students have quiet reading and journaling time after lunch, then turn to science and social studies. Some students join sixth-graders for certain courses.
Larger schools often have dedicated science or social studies teachers for these grades, but Rodriguez teaches all subjects, and develops separate lesson plans for the two grade levels. He finds areas of overlap where the grades can work together, and identifies things the grades need to study separately. Rodriguez said that “the planning and preparation are the most daunting part of the job so far.”
As a first-year teacher, Rodriguez said he's eager for the input and advice of his fellow teachers, school administrators and outside consultants. Tesha Czubinski, a veteran educator who teaches Dell City's second- and third-graders, is Rodriguez' official mentor, and Rodriguez said he's “taking advantage of all her experience.” He said that Ms. Czubinski, as well as his other fellow early-ed and elementary teachers, Berenice Mora and Erika Gamez, are “always showing that they care and are there for me.” He said the support of DCISD administrators and consultants from the regional Education Service Center is also vital.
“I'm truly just learning,” Rodriguez said. “This is a perfect setting for me to learn, and to be able to give the students what they need, because they're such a small group.”
Rodriguez doesn't come from a family of educators, but his interest in becoming a teacher still began young, in his teenage years.
Rodriguez was born in El Paso, and was raised in Juarez. His family moved back to El Paso when he was 10, and became involved members of an El Paso church, Iglesia Bautista Trinity. Rodriguez was “captivated” by Bible classes, he said, and during his senior year in high school, was invited to teach Bible classes himself, to younger members of the congregation. Rodriguez said he had a feeling it was something he could do, and he found the experience exciting and rewarding.
“I started seeing how much fun it is to take information from your brain and to put into other people's brains,” he said. “Seeing the reactions in the youth that I was teaching was fulfilling, and I kept imagining – I could probably do this for the rest of my life.”
In addition to church and teaching, Rodriguez discovered another passion when his family returned to El Paso: football. He'd played soccer in Juarez, and now Rodriguez enthusiastically embraced the U.S. sport. He played safety at Jefferson High School. After graduating there, Rodriguez enrolled as a student at UTEP.
“Teaching was plan A,” he said, “and football was plan B – I wanted to go pro.”
Rodriguez was a walk-on for the Miners his first years at UTEP. He received a football scholarship his senior year – and played for UTEP on special teams. He took many courses in the education department, but in part because he devoted so much time to athletics, he graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, rather than in education.
After graduation, Rodriguez began a year-long teacher training and certification course at the Education Service Center. He completed the training about a year ago, and worked as a substitute teacher in El Paso. Then, this summer, Education Service Center Director Barbara Amaya told him about an opening at Dell City ISD.
Rodriguez originally thought the opening was for a special-ed teacher, but when he arrived for the interview with Supt. Ruben Cervantes, he learned the special-ed position had been filled – and the district now needed a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher. Rodriguez was already certified in elementary education, and during his work as a sub, he thought that elementary teaching might be “the niche” for him. He said he's “still exploring” the possibilities within his vocation.
One thing Rodriguez is certain he wants to pursue is coaching. He did some PE teaching and coaching as a sub, and physical fitness and athletics remain a passion. He's joined Dell City football players in the weight room and in practice.
“My body needs to be active and running,” Rodriguez said. “I love being able to run and exercise with the kids – we teach by modeling, not just by telling them what to do. I know that, whatever it takes, I eventually want to go into coaching.”
Rodriguez said the Dell City environment is a “very comfortable one” in which to develop as a new teacher. He said one of the surprises, and pleasures, of the Dell City School is the involvement of parents and family members.
“I feel like parents here are much more involved than in El Paso,” he said. “I've even gotten the opportunity to meet the grandparents of the kids. The contact with parents is a lot more transparent and open, and I like that, because I want them to be a part of their kids' academics.”