Teacher Spotlight: Los Angeles’s Rita Ontiveros on Being a ‘Positive Rock’ for Low-Income and Homeless Students — and What’s Really Happening in a Kindergarten Classroom

Rita Ontiveros has taught kindergarten at Telfair Elementary for 23 years — and attended the school herself, as did two of her three children. (L.A. Unified)

This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report.

After 23 years teaching kindergartners at L.A. Unified’s Telfair Elementary in Pacoima, Rita Ontiveros has seen kindergarten — and her students’ challenges — evolve.

Kindergarten used to be more focused on “social exposure,” but now it’s marked by rigorous academics, which is why she believes kindergarten should be mandatory in California.

And her students, who are mostly Latino and low-income, are facing bigger hurdles, including homelessness and the fear of having one or both of their parents deported because of their status as undocumented immigrants.

That’s why Ontiveros believes her young students need more support, such as access to school nurses and counselors.

“Sometimes kindergartners are not always aware of what’s going on. But once in a while you do hear them talk, and you hear that they’re afraid that maybe one of their parents might get taken away, and it’s like, wow, they’re only 5 and they’re already hearing that,” Ontiveros said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

She said in those cases, “I reassure them that school is a safe place, that they’re OK here. They’ll tell me things that are going on in their household, and I just have to be that positive rock for them. … We’re a family. I always tell them that. And our classroom, we’re always a family, and we look out for each other and we take care of each other.”

Last year, the school — in the San Fernando Valley, north of downtown Los Angeles — had the highest percentage of homeless students in L.A. Unified. The district this year identified about 17,500 students as living in homelessness. Statewide, the number of K-12 homeless students has risen more than 20 percent in the past four years, to more than 200,000.

When Ontiveros heard the number of homeless students in the district, she said, “I was in shock. I really couldn’t believe it. I do know that a lot of my students live in multifamily homes where many of the family members live in one house. As you get to know your students, you also find out that some of them might live in a house,” although that doesn’t mean they live in the main house on the property, “but in the back or maybe in a garage that was converted.”

Such living conditions are familiar to Ontiveros, who grew up in the same neighborhood and in similar circumstances as many of her students. She also attended Telfair, as did two of her three daughters.

“Honestly, I think that Pacoima always has had many multigenerational families living together. I know growing up myself, it was that way. I lived in the home of my grandparents with my mother, and I had uncles who lived there also and some other cousins. I didn’t realize that that wasn’t the norm.

“And I just have continued to see that,” she said. “As for living in converted garages, that was another thing that I do remember seeing back then, 23 years ago, and still see it today.”

But now when families live together, they’re not necessarily related, she said. They do so just to afford the rent.

So in the past couple of years she has focused more and more on building relationships with her students. “I’m their teacher. I love them. I want them to know that we’re a family. Any child that’s placed in my class, I hope that I do the best job that I can for that child.”

Ontiveros always wanted to be a teacher, but she thought that as a Latina, she could only be a teacher’s assistant, like her mother, who worked for 30 years as an aide at Haddon Avenue Elementary. Ontiveros didn’t have a single Latino teacher until high school.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Ontiveros said. “I guess since my mom wasn’t, and I never had a teacher that was a Latina or Latino teacher, I just always assumed that I had to be the aide.”

But that changed when she was in 10th grade.

“There was an awesome biology teacher, Blanca Hernández. She was the first teacher I had who was of Latino descent,” she said. “It was there that I realized that I could be a teacher, that I didn’t have to be an aide first, and I was like, ‘Oh! I am going to be a teacher.’”

Before teaching at L.A. Unified, Ontiveros taught second grade at Baldwin Park Unified for five years. She wanted to teach at Telfair because “it’s my home. It’s where I went to school. It’s where I want to be because I want to be there for the kids. And now, my first set of students are starting to bring their kids back. Twice I’ve had children of my first class of students at Telfair. It’s an amazing feeling. I don’t really want to go anywhere else.”

LA School Report asked Ontiveros what can be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as what keeps her motivated to teach. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What do you think the school district could do better to support Telfair’s students? Is there anything you see on a daily basis in your school that you wish the district would do differently? 

My No. 1 thing is no nurse. We didn’t have a nurse the last couple months of school because our nurse moved out of state and they never got a replacement. That means some office staff and teachers have to step up in taking care of a child when they get hurt. I didn’t want to send them to the office, because I knew the office was bombarded, but sometimes they needed to go there because it wasn’t something that I could take care of with a Band-Aid.

Another way to benefit and help Telfair is we need more counselors. We need more because there are so many kids that have so many needs and they need someone to just talk to sometimes. When you have a class of 24 to 26 kids, you can’t always give a child the attention that they might need.

I know that we have been fortunate and that the district has been trying to provide us with more servicing, so I do feel very fortunate for that, but I think it needs to continue and to do a little bit more.

What do you think the school district, the city or the state could do differently to better support educators for success?

The first thing they could do is to really listen to the teachers. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the district level or at the state level, because sometimes we have people who are writing policies for us who are not in the classroom. They don’t know what it’s like every day trying to find the time to fit in everything that we need to fit in. They’re always like, “OK, well, you have the same hours. You can fit more of this in,” and no, I really can’t.

I also think that for the little ones — kindergarten, first grade, possibly second grade — it’s so rigorous and structured, but they’re still little, and they need to remember that they’re still little. They need that play-based learning. People think that because a child is playing that they’re not learning, but there’s so much learning in that. The conversation that kids can have if they have to play house or kitchen or restaurant, the conversations that used to come out of those kids were enormous. It used to be like that, but now it has to be more academic-based. For the little ones, sometimes they just need to be 5. You’re only 5 once. You need to be 5.

I just wish that those who are making our policies and our rules and our procedures, that they just listen to teachers a little bit more.

What would you say is the thing that’s most misunderstood about your job as a teacher? What’s the biggest difference between people’s perception of the teaching profession and what you have to deal with every day as a teacher?

Truthfully, I often feel like people think that all I do, especially in kindergarten, is play all day and I’m not teaching or doing academics. And to hear somebody tell me, “You have the little ones. All you do is play all day.” No, that’s not what I do. Now, kindergarten is much more academic. That’s probably the biggest misconception I feel that I get most of the time.

With teaching, there’s just so much more besides the teaching and the classroom. There’s the lesson planning. There’s the thinking. I work a lot with my kindergarten colleagues. We get together after school and we plan so that we’re meeting the needs of the kids. That’s one thing I love about my grade level: the collaboration. It’s not just that I’m there from when school starts at 8:00 until we leave at 2:23. No. I like to get there early because one, I’m an early bird, and two, I also like the peacefulness in the morning. And then oftentimes I see myself staying until 3:30, 4:00. My days are long, but for a good reason. People think I just work from 8 to 2:30. No, it’s a lot of extra hours.

How easy or difficult was it for you to enter the profession? Do you think the process is easy enough, or should it change?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have three student-teachers these last couple of years, and when I was becoming a teacher, and I was in a liberal arts program, I thought that it was more streamlined. I was able to go right into teaching, and I just had to take certain tests, and then I just got my credential, and I became a teacher. I feel that they’ve made it so much harder. The things that my student-teachers had to go through, they just make it much more difficult, because there’s not just one or two tests, there seems to be several tests that they now have to take, and if they don’t pass one part, then they have to retake it. They also have to submit reviews now. They send videos now. I’ve had to record the videos, and they have to do so much more.

I think we’re making it so much more difficult, but that’s not going to show whether someone’s going to be an awesome teacher or not. That’s just showing if you can follow all those steps.

I felt bad for my student-teachers. One, when you’re student-teaching, you don’t get paid, and then you have to pay for these tests and these videos to be submitted. There has to be a way where we can help these student-teachers and maybe help them either defer their costs or maybe put that cost at a later time, like OK, you can submit it now, but in a year we would like you to pay. Seeing what my student-teachers had to go through is just heartbreaking for me. They all did great. Now they’re employed with the district.

Do you have any specific memory of the first time you were in a classroom teaching?

I remember walking into my classroom when they gave me the keys, and I remember looking around and thinking, “Wow. This is mine, and I get to decorate it and make it what I want to make it. This is what I get to do. This is what I want to do.” I just remember being in such awe that this was my classroom. It was just an amazing experience.

How well prepared would you say that your students are when they enter kindergarten?

In kindergarten, you get such a wide variety of students that enter. You never know what you’re going to get. When those students walk in the door, you might have students that have some preschool experience, they might have attended the ETK at Telfair or the TK program at Telfair, or they might have had no experience whatsoever. You just have to really get to know them those first couple of weeks and then be able to guide your instruction to help all your students. You’re always busy because that’s such a wide range, but you can do it. You just have to find out what their strengths are.

Why do you think kindergarten is crucial for students to be successful?

I think it’s very crucial. Kindergarten is not mandatory in the state of California, but I really wish it were, because we have so much academics now in kindergarten that if you look at the Common Core standards, the things that they need to be doing when they leave me, if they don’t have that kindergarten experience and they go straight to first grade, it’s very, very challenging for them.

For example, in kindergarten, they have to be able to not just write a complete sentence, but write what an informational sentence is compared to a narrative sentence and an opinion sentence. Those are things I’m teaching them in kindergarten. What’s the difference between those things, how would we write it, what would it look like, what would it sound like. In the past 23 years, I’ve seen kindergarten really evolve, and it’s much more academic than what it was before, when it probably was much more social and exposure. Now, it’s academics.

How can parents best support you?

I’ve been so lucky. I’ve had amazing parents. I think communication is so key. I’ve been able to use social media to communicate with my parents. There’s an app called Class Dojo. It has made all the difference because I’m able to let parents know, and they’re able to talk to me too. They can send me messages through the app. I’m so lucky in that sense that I’ve had amazing parents. If you were to visit my classroom last year, and you came in, my class would tell you, “We have a secret,” and you would probably say, “What’s your secret?” They would tell you because little kids can’t keep a secret. They would tell you, “We’re the best class,” because I want them to know that. I would always reiterate that to their parents. Your kids are amazing. Your kids are great. Remember to tell them that every day.

I’m very fortunate with the parents. If I need something, if I need it, they’ll volunteer. They come in. They have to go through a whole new volunteer procedure, which actually kind of takes a little bit longer, but some parents are always willing to do it if I need it. We have breakfast in the classroom, and sometimes we have a spill because they’re 5, they’re kindergartners. The district’s paper towels don’t always absorb very well, so I would ask the parents for paper towels. They would come through all the time. If I told them, “Oh, your child needs to work on something, and this is how you can work on it with them,” and I would show them, then they would go ahead and they would do that.

I encourage them to just read with their child, to spend some time talking with their child. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had great parents, and we’ve had a great relationship and communication, and they have really helped their kids. I think communication is so key.

What has been your best moment or day as a teacher? What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?

There are so many. My thing is that every day is a new day. When I walk into that classroom, it’s a new day. If, for some reason, the day before, something went wrong or somebody had a bad day, the next day’s a fresh start. It always is, and I try to remind my kids that every day you get a fresh start.

My greatest accomplishment or moment? I think for me it’s because in kindergarten a lot of times they cannot read. When we start kindergarten, I’d say like 99.9 percent of them can’t read, but at the end of the year, they’re reading. The prior school year, I had a little boy, and I would just teach him to read the books in the classroom, and he came up to me and said, “Teacher?” I said, “Yes.” He goes, “I know how to read,” and I said, “I know,” and he looked at me with the biggest eyes, and he said, “You know?” I said, “Yes, I know you can read.”

That was just like, Oh my goodness, and again it happened this year with a different child where they just are reading and their parents are like, “Oh my goodness. I can’t believe they’re coming home and they’re reading.” I’m like, “Yes, that’s what happens in kindergarten. They’re reading, writing, doing addition, subtraction.” Amazing. The growth you see in kindergarten, I don’t think you see it quite in any other grade like you do in kindergarten.

What’s your main goal for the coming school year?

The first, most important thing for my classroom next year is that I want my class to know that I’m there for them. I’m their teacher. I love them. I want them to know that we’re a family. That to me is so important, the relationships that you establish, because if you get the relationships down, then the rest come with it. There’s a saying that kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. I’m not so sure I’d be their best friend, but they have to know that you care. They have to know that you care and you’re there for them, and everything else just falls into place.

Every year, I think to myself, “Oh my gosh. I’m going to get a new class. Am I going to miss them as much as I miss my old class?” The answer is yes. Just like a mother, you have room in your heart for all your children. That’s really important. I can’t stress how important that is. I want my kids to know that they’re my kids.

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