Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.
Rebecca Palacios had dreamed of becoming a teacher since the first grade, but when she shared her career aspirations with a high-school college counselor in the late ’60s, the counselor told her that she should instead become a secretary. Back then, Palacios—whose Mexican-American roots in her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, stretch back four generations—went to segregated schools designed to prepare students of color for factory jobs or clerical work.
Palacios ignored her counselor’s advice and in the next four decades, consistently overcame expectations. In 1975, Palacios became the first in her family to graduate from college, eventually earning a Ph.D. in education in 1996 from the University of Texas at Austin. She began teaching in 1976, at Lamar Elementary in Corpus Christi: the country’s first district to integrate Latino and white children. And she continued to teach preschool for 34 years until she retired in 2010, becoming one of the most distinguished bilingual early-childhood educators. In 2014, Palacios became the first Latina to receive the National Teachers Hall of Fame award from Emporia State University.
When I visited Palacios in Corpus Christi in the spring of 2018, I asked her to reflect on the most essential building blocks of a high-quality preschool program. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Kristina Rizga: How did your teaching improve after your first decade in the classroom?
Rebecca Palacios: The biggest shift was that I learned how to integrate multiple subject areas into a very visual, oral, tactile, thematically integrated lesson environment, where it wasn’t just me talking to children. Early on in my career, my teaching was more splintered and not as engaging for children: Now it’s reading time; now it’s math time; now it’s science time.
Around that time, several teachers and I created the district curriculum based on the theme of families. Every two weeks, there was a new theme about family: my family; my school family; family celebrations and traditions; families on a farm; animal, insect and plant families. As we were learning about families living on a farm, we would integrate math by learning about the shapes of the buildings on a farm: the silo, the triangles in front of the barn door. We would teach seasons of the year as science, as well as the life-cycle of animals on a farm, and how the farmer prepares, plants, and rotates crops. And then for social studies, we would explore the farmer’s job, farm-to-market systems, and the transportation pieces that support the work. And then back to math again: How many wheels does each car have? And throughout every piece, you are developing vocabulary and literacy.
The more a teacher integrates subjects thematically, the more she can review and reinforce similar concepts over time. You are making important connections and correlations. For example: Ants have a home, and here is how the seasons affect their work and life. Look, they go down under the ground, and they close their door. Just like the farmer, who closed up the field. And you rhyme, decode, sound, and blend new letters and words—building phonemic awareness around a theme.
Building it all together for young children just became so much more fun, engaging, and meaningful to them than me just saying, “Okay, now we’re going to read this book, and let’s just clap these words”—if the words have no connection to anything in children’s minds.
Rizga: At the age of four, what knowledge, skills, and dispositions are most essential to learn?
Palacios: I felt my job was to build reading, math, science, social studies, art, and music into engaging learning experiences that helped the child develop vocabulary and made them want to come to school. If they have the vocabulary, and they understand what that vocabulary actually means, they will be able to be great readers.
But you can’t just read and decode. If you can’t picture the word in your head, there’s no comprehension. If you’re reading a book about animals and plants and you can decode ‘lion’—but you’ve had no experience with what a lion is—then you’ve lost the comprehension. People in Corpus Christi knew that I was always looking for materials to create learning environments. I had a professor once call me and say, “I heard you do a lot of science, and I have petrified wood. Would you like it?” I said, “Absolutely!” You can’t teach four-year-olds by talking; you have to show them. “These are ancient pieces of wood. These are sedimentary rocks. This is how friction, momentum, inertia work.” I wanted low-income children to use the language that kids on the other side of the town were hearing, and I’d bring pulleys, weights, rocks—whatever it took for them to visualize and manipulate different ideas.
I had lessons for them where they could combine colors for their paintings. “I put red, blue, green, yellow, and orange together, and it made brown!” a kid would say. Now, I could have told them that—but when they can do it by themselves, it’s just a whole other level of learning. They’ll remember.
Rizga: What advice do you wish a veteran teacher had shared with you early on?
Palacios: One of the biggest mistakes I made in my career, early on, was not involving the families in my work. In the ’90s, my teaching partner and I wrote a proposal for a $2,000 grant to start a lending library for families, to engage them in their children’s vocabulary development. Some parents were Spanish speakers; some of them were English speakers. As teachers, we only had the children for three hours; then they went home, and they didn’t have a rich print environment. Maybe they didn’t have books to read; the parents might have had interrupted or unfinished schooling.
Every six weeks we would have a parent workshop, and we would use books to coach parents to do what we did, And we had such a great turnout of parents. We would meet in one room; the kids were in the other room. Then we used some of those kids to come and be the models. “Let me show you how you can do this at home.” And by the way, if you can’t read and need the book played, we had this lending library. We had enough money to buy 25 cassette players, 25 tote bags, and just tons of books that were in English and Spanish. That $2,000 grant reaped so many rewards over time. We did a pre- and post-test, and our scores were through the roof.
Rizga: What have been the most consequential changes in education in the past four decades?
Palacios: Funding cuts to public education have been devastating. The district used to provide a little pool of money, and sometimes it was $200 a year, but it really helped me to buy consumables, like paint, crayons, seeds, and play dough. In preschools, you need a lot of materials for language experiences. You have to bring in these things that they can roll, touch, play with, cook, eat, and smell—and they’re just not there.
Two years ago, the district contracted me to train teachers on how to teach STEAM [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics]. At some point, I asked a teacher, “Could you get me some of the long wood blocks?” They didn’t have any. The classrooms looked like first-grade classrooms—no manipulatives or toys.
When I was starting out, we had 15 children and a paraprofessional in an all-day program. And then, about two decades later, I taught 22 kids in the morning for three hours, and 22 kids in the afternoon. I was teaching 44 kids a day. On top of it, you have more pressure from the state, the federal government, and the district to achieve different things, to do different things, to show different data.
A lot of teachers I know are holding down two jobs and can barely make ends meet with two degrees. It is very difficult to retain the best and the brightest if you don’t pay appropriately.
And then there is the lack of respect from families. What I see these days is more of the parents saying “You are not helping my child” instead of “How can we solve this problem together?” It started to happen right around the beginning of the ’90s, with all of these powerful forces being vocal about how horrible public schools are. And if you are constantly saying that the schools and teachers are failing, then parents feel entitled to be disrespectful toward teachers.
Rizga: What kind of leadership style is constructive for maintaining a positive school culture?
Palacios: When I look at leadership styles, and I’ve seen quite a few, I think of leaders who were caring and empowering of everyone on the campus, from families to students to teachers. I’m not sure I would have survived my first year of teaching without our principal, Mr. Eddie Torres. If we had an irate parent, he’d say, “Let me see what I can do to resolve it first. And then if there are issues, we’ll bring you in.” Mr. Torres really supported you in your teaching role and did whatever it took to keep you in the classroom. He let you teach to your maximum potential. He also knew how to create a family of teachers, parents, and students. He would cook for hundreds of teachers once in a while. He was just great at bringing people together through shared experiences. It felt like a family.
When I was starting out, principals and teachers were in a partnership. It was not a top-down management style as it is today. And in part, there’s top-down management because there are so many top-down mandates. A lot of principals only come in for 30 or 45 minutes to observe. They just have a page, and they have to adhere to it. They may not be seeing the total picture. Don’t come in and say, “Why did you do this or didn’t do this?” Say instead, “Can you please explain to me what you intended here?”
Rizga: You were teaching during school desegregation efforts in the ’70s, which were supported by federal grants—known as the Follow Through project—through President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program. What was the impact of those investments?
Palacios: The Follow Through grant made a huge impact in the community. The grants funded teacher training for three years and parent engagement, and it provided medical and dental care for the kids.
We had bilingual consultants come in who modeled lessons for the teachers and then came back a few months later and said, “Okay, show me now what you’re doing.” It had been so rare to see Latino teaching trainers. It really brought us to that higher level of reflection in our practice. Out of all professional development I received, this was the most important, and it helped me stay in the classroom for as long as I did.
The Follow Through grant also had a very strong family engagement program. They’d go out, find parents in the neighborhood, and bring them in to teach them leadership skills: how to be active, how to support the teachers, how to support themselves and their children. Latino parents became very involved. They could come any time. They had their own room, with special parent facilitators who helped them understand the system: I want to learn English; I need help with cooking and nutrition; How do I go back to school and get my degree?; I want help with my child’s health care.
At Zavala Elementary, where I coach novice teachers now, a lot of those young parents who were empowered with Follow Through grants are still volunteering at the school. Angie Gutierrez is still at Zavala, and she recruits other parents from the neighborhood. Angie goes to the school every day. She decorates, paints murals, bakes, and helps teachers in the classroom. She helps families come in and continue to learn—and she’s been there since the 1970s. Looking back at our district, we’ve had a lot of initiatives, but I’ve never seen a program impact family engagement so strongly, especially for our Latino community. Only a person with institutional memory, like me, would realize that long-lasting impact.
This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.