Maria Nuñez was born in Argentina and lived in several countries before her family moved to Houston, TX when she was in sixth grade. She graduated from Rice University in 2013 with a major in political science and French and a minor in human justice. She’s now in her fifth year of teaching sixth grade math and serves as the grade level chair at YES Prep Fifth Ward.
What was your path to YES Prep?
My minor in human justice focused on poverty and systemic racism. As part of my minor, I took a few classes on the sociology of Houston with Dr. Klineberg and learned about YES Prep in my classes. These classes showed me the inequalities that exist in Houston, and I decided that teaching was the best way to address these inequalities and change a child’s future. I started working as a campus recruitment coordinator my junior year to help recruit Rice seniors to teach at YES Prep. I also went to several YES Prep campuses to observe. From my observations, I knew that the school culture was very strong. I applied to Teach For America my senior year and was placed at YES Prep Fifth Ward.
What do you say to someone who is considering teaching at YES Prep?
I tell them about the support system. You have so much support and are developed as a person and a teacher. You’ll be observed and pushed to become the best teacher you can be. You have no option but to grow because that’s the best thing for kids.
What has your experience been with the collaboration between teachers at YES Prep?
When we started this year, our content leader gave us the first three units, so that you don’t have to create new materials for the first few months. I was able to take those materials and adapt them for my kids. During STAAR review, we worked together to provide practice problems for each TEK. When it was time for STAAR review, our students had a tracker that showed what TEKs they needed to focus on. I set up folders labeled with each TEK and students could go get the practice they needed. At one point, every single student was working on a different TEK. That sort of differentiation is unimaginable without collaboration.
Why is having a strong math teacher important for kids?
A strong teacher can help students overcome negative mindsets about math. A lot of our students come to YES Prep with math trauma, where they think they’re “bad at math,” can never be successful, shouldn’t use their fingers when counting, etc. When we do problems in class, I try to show them that there are many strategies to solve the same problem. It’s okay to draw pictures. It’s okay to use your fingers to count. When I model a problem, I’ll sometimes even count on my fingers to show them that it’s okay.
A strong teacher can also change the whole trajectory for a student. We are preparing students to get into college, so they have to do well on the SAT, and the SAT is largely middle school math. If I can give my 6th graders a solid grasp on the basics like adding fractions and decimals by hand, then it changes the whole course of their math career.
What has been one of your favorite memories or experiences at YES Prep?
Two years ago, I had a student who had just moved from Mexico in the middle of the year. She didn’t speak any English, and she struggled a lot socially and in her classes. On her first math common assessment, she earned a 78%, which is even higher than some students who speak English. I was thrilled and curious, so I pulled her test and saw that she’d used her dictionary to translate every single word on the test into Spanish. Since she was a beginner language learner, she was allowed extra time on her exam. She spent nine and a half hours. Her work ethic is incredible. I kept a photo of her test, and she still asks me for help on her math homework. This girl is what YES Prep is all about. She wants to be a math teacher when she grows up!