Alum Spotlight: Araceli Leon


UTEC Alum Araceli Leon

Cohort: 2018

Credential: Multiple Subject with a Bilingual Authorization in Spanish

Degrees: B.A. in Sociology with a Latin American Studies minor, Ed.D in Educational Leadership K-12, San Francisco State University (in progress)

Program: 4+1 Dual Degree

Current Teaching Positions: Kindergarten, Buena Vista Horace Mann; Adjunct Faculty for USF’s Teacher Education Department

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Question: What was your first or one of your earliest jobs after you graduated? And what has your career path been like since?

Araceli: Throughout my time in USF, I was working multiple jobs. I worked in after-school [programs], I worked in a charter school that I helped found, and in my last year I worked at Monroe Elementary School in SFUSD. I’d been working as a teacher of record on an intern credential during my final year at USF, so I was working as a kindergarten Spanish immersion teacher. I continued at Monroe for about five years before moving over to Buena Vista Horace Mann, when an opening happened in kindergarten. To go back to my own elementary school was full circle for me.

Question: What was the experience like being a teacher of record while you were also finishing the program?

Araceli: It was an interesting balance game, because I would finish my work day and rush over to USF. I would continue my studies as a student, but I loved it. I loved being able to learn in school, and then apply what I learned in school directly into the classroom. I did that frequently throughout my time as an educator doing the program. I always felt really excited because I would learn something in class, and then I’d apply it directly into the classroom. Or I’d see something in class with my students and then ask about it in class. So I felt really excited that what I was learning was really practical for the classroom.

Question:  What’s made you pursue your [Ed.D]? What are you hoping to do in the future?

Araceli: I decided to pursue my Ed.D for a lot of reasons. You know, I love what I do. I’m really passionate about education, and I have had opportunities to be able to engage more in educational spaces and really assume leadership roles in different capacities, such as being the President of the Latin American Teachers Association going on my sixth year. I’ve been the ELD Coordinator. I’ve been a health advocate. I’ve been the team lead. I’ve been on the instructional leadership team and I’m currently part of the Teacher Leader Fellowship in our district. And being able to engage in all these spaces makes it really important to know that my voice is heard in these spaces, and how I advocate for students and their needs. So I really feel like the more that I engage myself in educational spaces, the more I can provide and be a voice that is critical for our students. Ultimately, where I end up, there are a lot of opportunities and a lot of paths. I’ve been really enjoying engaging and being a professor [at USF] and really exploring that avenue a lot. It’s hard for me to even consider myself out of the classroom, but I know that eventually I’ll probably seek an avenue into leadership and see where I go in that scope as well. Right now there’s a lot of opportunities. I wanted to make sure to keep engaging in as many as I can while I can and while I’m really eager for it.

Question: As the president of the Latin American Teachers Association of San Francisco, what are some of the concerns and issues your association focuses on?

Araceli: I love our organization. It’s been around since 1970. It’s a really important organization in the work that we do, advocating for our Latino students or Latinx students, as well as making sure that we provide opportunities for our students. We give out yearly scholarships, and we have a scholarship dinner dance that we celebrate every year. It was particularly challenging to navigate how to do it over Zoom and with the need growing exponentially over the last three years. So we, as a team, continuously think about how we adapt to make sure that we’re best fitting the needs of our students. We also really value a space for our educators to feel connections to one another and support it. And we try to create different events, which really brings our community together. In the past we’ve had celebrations like the Reyes Magos, and we bring our educators together. In March we will host a Zumba-thon where we’ll have the opportunity for educators to work out. We were thinking about how our district calendar this year doesn’t have any breaks. There’s no days off, so what can we do to animar our community? Really bringing back things that we had to omit and change in our priorities during the pandemic. So now it’s really exciting to get to engage again with our community in person.

Question: I know this is a funny question, but in teaching kindergarten and teaching UTEC students and other grad students, are there different muscles you’re using as a teacher? Or do you find that your techniques are actually very similar in some ways?

Araceli: Obviously, kindergartners are 5-year-olds versus UTEC/ graduate students. But I think my teaching style is the same. I tell it how it is, and I think that’s the best part of teaching. With kindergarten, a lot of people shy away from having hard conversations with kindergarteners. I’m very authentic about how I bring up conversations and I make it relevant. And I think, as much as I would be very honest with my students, I’m honest at both ends. One of the things I value as an educator is being able to provide as much support as I can. I tell my students in their masters years that we are a community. These are the same things that I base my educational experiences with my kindergarteners—we are a community. How do we start from there? I think there’s so many intricacies, and sometimes it’s hard to always find cohesion in how to be able to provide those supports. So when I come into the classroom, whether it’s my kindergarten classroom or with [my kindergartners’] parents, or with my students at USF, I’m always trying to be a master of resources. Trying to provide those resources for my students—at any level—is critical. So there are differences. There are nuances. I’m not teaching addition in the same way. But I think the basis of my educational pedagogy stays the same.

Question: You authored a children’s book, What Would the World Be Without Latinos? Tell me a little bit about that experience.

Araceli: It was a wonderful experience and came out of the pandemic. While I was teaching kindergarten through the pandemic and doing distance learning, we were all trying to navigate the newness of a different way of teaching, like a crisis way of teaching, because we had to adapt so quickly. I was hired through the district to work as the Read Aloud Coordinator for SF Loves Learning, which was a daily program that was created during the pandemic to target our K to second grade learners. We struggled with accessibility to technology in the beginning, so the district made this daily programming where we’d capture so many things that we hoped students would be able to engage with and continue their learning through a different modality. While doing that work, I was reaching out to a lot of different authors and making connections with publishers, and how we can make sure we were above copyrights to be able to broadcast and then upload our videos onto YouTube.

So I connected with an old high school peer of mine [Erica Burrell], who had written the first book in the series, What Would the World Be Without Black People? When I reached out to her I told her, You know, I bought your book right when it came out. I think this is important. Let’s make sure we highlight your book, and you as an author, as a self-published author. She told me she wanted to write another book. She said to me, I think as a Latina woman, your voice will be really critical in the creation of the series or the development of the series. So a connection from one space led to a connection in another space, and during the pandemic as things were unraveling, we would together write this book. We wrote it in English, and then translated it to Spanish. So now it exists in both languages, which is really important to us.

It’s amazing to see my likeness on a front cover, and it’s amazing to know that so many young learners have been able to have accessibility to things that you know they wouldn’t have known. That’s the main feedback I get, that there are a lot of things people didn’t know about Latino contributions to society that this book helps open awareness for. I think that’s the main idea, the main goal of these books. Erica Burrell continues to publish very culturally responsive and enriching books.

Question: What were some of the highlights of your time in UTEC?

Araceli: I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I never thought that I would have the opportunity to go to USF. I never even thought it was within my scope of reality. So when I finally found the program, and I initially had my meeting with [Program Manager] Melissa Hope all those many years ago. For the first time I believed I could, and both [UTEC director] Mary [Coen] and Melissa kept encouraging me throughout. The program was like, you’re already an educator. Let us help be the vehicle that gets you through the door of credentialing. And you know I’d been in after-schools. I’d been working every single role in education. I loved teaching. I knew it coming into the program. I sought this program as a transfer student because I wanted to be able to to be a credentialed teacher one day. I supported myself through it. I had to work the whole time, and even with our large course load of 18 units and working three jobs, I found a lot of joy in what I did. I loved the application of knowledge. I loved being able to go into the classroom and apply everything I was learning.

I think there’s just so many layers of USF and UTEC in who I get to be now in the classroom. You know, every time I drive to USF to teach my class [Curriculum: Currents and Controversies] on Wednesdays, I’m in awe that this is my reality now. I’m all about being kind of circular and going back. I am very thankful for the opportunity to have engaged in this program, because I have a community. I’m an alumni now, and that’s a title I get to own, and I’m proud. I will meet other USF students in my travels; I’m part of this USF community forever. I see new students coming into the UTEC program. I have mentored some during their [undergraduate] field work. I see them in the halls. And I tell them, It’s gonna happen. What feels like a lot right now in the moment, come seven years, and it’ll just be like, wow! You did it! Imagine you’ll have been in the classroom and settled. The first few years are hard, but find your community. That looks different for everyone, but there are lots of spaces to engage community. I think this program provided me with the access I needed to be able to do what I’ve dreamt of doing.