September 21, 2021

'Why would I teach them?' Morton East educator explains her mission

BERWYN – It's a quarter to four on a Thursday afternoon, and the hallways of Morton East High School are nearly empty. The sound of feet hurrying and locker doors shutting can be heard echoing in the distance. The laughter from students in an after-school club lingers but quietens as soon as Sofia Gonzalez closes her classroom door.

A quick glance around her room reveals Gonzalez’s thoughtful design. A sense of coziness competes with the white walls. A pile of bean bags and a soft area rug take over a corner, breaking away from the sea of desk pods. A single string of twinkling lights is wrapped around the white board. Among the posters hung, two words pop out: hustle and hope. The first stands bold on a sheet and is placed at the front of the room. The latter appears on a canvas, rising above a city-like skyline, near her desk.

Since 2014, Gonzalez has taught English at Morton East, transforming her classroom into a sanctuary. This place is for Gonzalez and her students to share, grow and learn together.

That is, she said, the hope every teacher carries with them. That schools and classrooms can be a safe, positive space for students and their teachers. But as Gonzalez looked at the graffiti-like mural above her desk, which was a gift from a former student, she spoke candidly of her experiences as an educator and the lessons that changed her.

These experiences shaped her into the teacher she is today, and she’s held onto them. They’re part of her narrative, and without them, Gonzalez said she wouldn’t have truly understood what it means to be named the 2019 Educator of the Year by the National Society of High School Scholars. That would’ve just been an award, a title.

“My first couple of years I ended up losing some students to gang violence,” said Gonzalez of Berwyn, who started her career in education at an alternative school in Chicago.

Her voice softened. “It was such a traumatic [experience] for me, but at the same time, it was more of like this epiphany. My first student funeral – I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. It was gruesome, just speaking with grieving parents and just feeling like I need to do something.”

As she continued to reflect, she referred to those days as a “baptism by fire.” Gonzalez was working with students who had faced a lifetime’s worth of adversities before even stepping into the school building.

“I had kids that were in and out of the prison system, single moms with two, three children,” she said, adding that her students, at best, were just trying to make it through the day.

Her students were categorized as “at-risk,” an umbrella term that covered up her students’ faces and showed them as numbers on standardized test scores and graduation rates. That data didn’t take into account what her students were dealing with outside the classroom.

As a Latina and a teacher, Gonzalez, who worked with students of color in communities of color, saw firsthand that the issues of gun and gang violence and poverty, for instance, were so much more than meets the eye.

At Morton East, Gonzalez said her west suburban-based students also have similar struggles to overcome. Ninety-one percent of East's students come from low-income families and nearly 96% of the student population is Hispanic, according to the 2018-2019 Illinois Report Card. Gonzalez broke down what that means.

“A lot of students here come from immigrant families without citizenship,” she said. “So we have a lot of dreamers in the building, just a lot of them facing some insurmountable odds. We have some poverty issues, and that’s not a secret. We’re a Title I school, which means that we receive special funding from the state [to help meet the academic needs of students from low-income families].”

These are harsh realities, and though it may seem like the cards are stacked against those students, Gonzalez is committed to her students’ success and refuses to leave anyone behind.

Ask Gonzalez why she teaches and she’ll respond with a few lines from a spoken-word poem she wrote and has previously performed.

“Why would I teach ‘them?’ “ she recited from memory, sitting comfortably at a student desk. “Because I’ve never seen a group of ‘them’ who survived the way they’ve survived. I’ve never met a group of ‘them’ who fought back things like a heart attack: ‘You’ll never amount to nothing. You’ll be dead in no time. You’re just like your daddy locked up in prison’ kind of stuff and still come out with their head up.”

When it comes to resources, Gonzalez said that some teachers like herself need much more than just updated textbooks and basic supplies.

“I need counselors and nurses,” she said. “Give me a laptop, so that I could give them something that they could say is theirs. Those are some of the things that I need. Crisis prevention, a jacket in the winter – give me that. Give me bus cards.”

In recent years, Gonzalez has taken matters into her own hands. She created Project 214, a nonprofit that promotes local and global education. The name, she said, is a reminder of her first classroom, Room 214. With her husband Joel and her team by her side, they have traveled to Puerto Rico, Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador to provide relief and extend their partnership.

“Education is a fundamental right and not a privilege,” Gonzalez said of the main message behind Project 214. “Education for all your ZIP code shouldn’t determine your destiny. Like there’s no way that a child’s ZIP code should determine their outcomes.”

Looking around her classroom, Gonzalez opened up about being vulnerable as a teacher, especially when she worked in CPS. Day in and day out, she tried to carry her students’ weights. At some point, Gonzalez found herself raising money for her students’ funerals.

It was hard, she said, to stay tough, focused. Everyone reaches a breaking point when they have lived in fear and loss for so long.

Gonzalez left CPS with “some scars” and needed time to heal. Morton East in Cicero sits right at Chicago’s border and is 15 minutes away from Little Village, a stop on Gonzalez’s educational journey.

Right by her classroom’s entrance, there’s a sign on a wall that reads “Schools are not war zones,” a remnant from her past life. She talked about compassion fatigue and how “teachers in the trenches” can’t shake off their students’ worries or problems.

Teachers can’t just brush things off. Their students need to have that chance to succeed, so they can thrive, instead of survive, she said.

“I have no clue how they pick up the pen and try again,” Gonzalez said, whipping out the other verse of her spoken word. “This time music comes from their paper.”

“I won’t reach them all,” she continued. “Some will fall. Some will get up, and some will press the button. Reset and change their mindset. And some did walk down the aisle with a cap and gown. That’s why I took it, and I take it. Does that answer your question now?”