Through what she calls her “college schedule,” Amelia Garcia of Edinburg dedicates certain days to calling her students. One day, Garcia received a call from one of her students after she missed their daily phone call due to work meetings.
“Mrs. Garcia, you didn’t call,” her student asked.
This interaction is one of many in Garcia’s life that shows her students are adapting to a new online, educational format imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Garcia, 50, who has been a special education teacher for nearly 17 years, currently serves four different classes in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District — three sixth grade English language arts classes and one eighth grade social studies class in addition to three of her own classes.
As a former special education student herself, Garcia’s drive to service her students can be traced to her childhood as she watched her mother, Guadalupe Fernandez Huerta, single-handedly raise eight children. This included caring for Garcia’s special needs being a child with epilepsy.
“I think that’s why a lot of parents can feel the genuine teaching that’s coming from me because I, too, was in that place,” Garcia said. “I have that special connection with them because I saw my mom, (and) what she went through. I experienced first-hand what it is to be a student with a disability.”
Garcia considers her mother her first teacher. When people didn’t think Garcia could get work done, her mother defied them and encouraged her to keep it up.
Due to her epilepsy, Garcia didn’t learn to read until she was 8 years old. Garcia recounts when she had a spelling test, she would put a list on the side of the divider during testing to try to remember how to spell.
The teacher found the list and told Garcia’s mother, “She’s going to repeat the second grade, not because she doesn’t know how to read, but because if she could cheat, she could learn how to read.”
“Somebody at least believes in me that I can accomplish this feat,” she recalled with a laugh.
In middle school, Garcia struggled as a special education student. One day, her teacher gave her a job application to learn to fill out; claiming research showed special education students tended to drop out around middle school.
Instead, Garcia said, she persisted and knew in her heart that she didn’t want to drop out of school; so she continued her studies. This came with the reality that she would no longer be afforded the special services provided to her beforehand.
The principal asked Garcia’s mother if she was OK with Garcia moving, to which she responded, “You need to ask her, not me. I’m not coming to school, she is.”
While her mother is the foundation of Garcia’s journey, she found additional strength in her husband Jose Garcia, 49, who supported her throughout school. Garcia eventually earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in college.
She said the transition to online teaching due to the pandemic didn’t just affect the students. Garcia mentioned that students and parents both needed support.
“It’s not just about the student, it’s also about my parents, and I tried to extend those strategies for them to take to their homes,” she added.
It wasn’t easy. If a student struggles with selective mutism, Garcia had to find a teaching approach over the phone. Additionally, Garcia has students who may not have compatible devices for the program Google Classroom.
“I work with the parent over the phone and the parent is an extension of me,” Garcia said. “It’s been an eye-opener between teacher and parent, but only because now, more than ever, we need to work as a team.”
Once the parents joined the social circle between a teacher and student, Garcia noted that they’ve become more connected rather than separated.
Garcia explained she noticed that some students struggled with the transition from the classroom to their respective homes.
As some students don’t have access to all the materials and resources, she began reading the class textbook to her students every day.
Although they’re reading from a textbook, Garcia constantly tries to link the content to regular life for the students; she gave an instance of when her students struggled with the word “boycott” during a session, so Garcia defined the word by using their lunch food preferences as an example.
“You have to know when students have their fill because if not, it’s not going to be good,” Garcia said. “Sometimes they just want to talk.”
There’s a sense of a union between Garcia and her students; She’ll ask them about their day and pose questions to spark a conversation. For an icebreaker, Garcia asked, “What would you like your teacher to know right now,” with answers ranging from praising to conveying how much they miss her.
Garcia gives an example of a sixth grader, a bilingual girl who was more comfortable with Spanish and was scared due to the transition from elementary to middle school, showing impressive progress and growth.
“You can hear it in my voice, I want to cry because it’s so good to see [the students progress],” Garcia said. “We were so excited that I think we embarrassed [the sixth grade girl] because she started to turn red and I said, ‘No, no, no… we’re so proud of you!’”
However, Garcia doesn’t single herself out. Even in her home, she takes the breakfast table while her husband, who is also a teacher, takes the dining room table to get their work done.
She speaks highly of her fellow coworkers and those outside her district who dedicate the same passion.
“My team always gives me praise, and I really appreciate that from the bottom of my heart, but it’s an honor for me to help to give back,” Garcia said.