Former Dallas ISD ESL student inspires students as their teacher

When Gustavo Zaragoza, a teacher at Career Institute East, was a student and a newcomer to the country, he never imagined going into the education field. Through his work as a teacher, he is now able to identify with his students and empower them, as teachers once did for him.

Having grown up in Mexico, and not knowing the language when he first arrived in the district, he said he felt intimidated at times, and that it was in his ESL classes that he felt safe. He says he’s committed to create that type of environment for his students, where they feel confident and secure.

He credits former teachers like Elena Bates, who is now the executive director of Personalized Learning, for motivating him and helping him feel seen as a student. He recalls a moment when he and other students were taking a state exam and how Bates waited with them past school hours until they finished their exam. Zaragoza said that by doing that, she sent a powerful message, one that he would never forget on his road to becoming a teacher. 

“She made us feel comfortable and would let us be ourselves,” Zaragoza said. “And that’s what I want to show my students.”

Now in his fourth year of teaching Spanish heritage for careers, an elective class designed for native speakers, which meets the foreign language requirement for graduation.

Before working in the education field, Zaragoza worked as a behavior technician in a community clinic. After graduating from the University of North Texas with a degree in sports medicine, he found challenges finding a job in this field, and worked with children who have autism. In his behavior technician role, it was a parent who suggested he become a teacher because she noticed he had great rapport with children. 

That motivated Zaragoza to go through the district’s alternative certification program. It was at a district career fair that he met Career Institute East Director Kyna Eberhardt and Assistant Principal Victoria Davis. Zaragoza came on board during COVID and most of his students were virtual with only a few in the classroom. Davis and Eberhardt knew that he was the right one for the job. 

“You can tell through his language, he has such a growth mindset,” Davis said. “He always wants to be the best for the students. He’s always wanting to learn, and he’s always thinking about what he can do next to help his students.”

Davis added that Zaragoza sees himself reflected in his students, and he puts all of his heart and soul into his work. 

Zaragoza said that if there’s one word to describe how he feels about the work that he is doing  is “grateful.” He said that his students make him happier, and he’s able to identify with his students, especially his ESL students. His students might not notice, but they give him more than what he gives them.

Zaragoza’s hope for his students is for all of them to be successful. He says he wants to change his students’ mindset, and for them to know that they are smart, that they are good enough, and that they can accomplish their goals. 

“That’s what I want to be able to accomplish,” Zaragoza said. “To have at least one of my students say ‘Mr. Zaragoza, your work changed my mindset and helped me.’” 

Davis describes Zaragoza as a teacher who works hard and is a role model who lets his students know they can be anything they want to be. 

“He’s thinking positively and speaking positively to them and helping them problem solve and become critical thinkers,” Davis said. “His level of professionalism and commitment to excellence is executed every day.”

Zaragoza says he understands what his students are going through as newcomers to the country, and wants to make sure that he not only is a professional, but a professional who is a human being, expressing empathy and understanding to his students. He says his students often express themselves in the classroom because they tell him that they trust him. 

His work has earned him the award of “Teacher of the Year” at Career Institute East. 

Despite the praise and accolades, Zaragoza said he remains focused on the work and on making a difference in the lives of his students, always reminded of what his grandmother used to say: “Stay grounded, keep learning, and keep developing.” 

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