SOE student has ‘natural presence’ in classroom

Look out world

Graduating with her master of science in education, Yahaira Rivera wants to teach second or third grade in any one of the New York City boroughs — an environment she knows well.

From the Bronx, she came to Binghamton as an undergraduate student in the Educational Opportunity Program, following on the heels of two of her older brothers. She earned her undergraduate degree in Spanish literature in 2008, which made sense because she’s fluent in Spanish. In fact, English is her second language.

“I’m looking mainly to teach in the city,” Rivera says. “It’s very challenging and there’s a lot of competition for jobs, especially with the budget cuts, and teaching is tough there, but I’ve lived in the city my whole life.

“It’s also very important to be bilingual,” she says. “Knowing two languages is almost essential, and understanding diversity will be an important aspect of my teaching.”

Challenges aren’t new to Rivera, nor is rising to them. And though her teachers and mentors never doubted her skills in the classroom, she wasn’t too certain at first if the teaching path was the right one for her. “It’s different, hard, challenging,” says Rivera, who wants to teach special education students.

“But after I started student teaching, I saw how much of a difference you can make in a child’s life and I decided then that’s where I want to be.”

Seeing one child in particular make progress reinforced her decision. “I wrote about this in one of my journals,” she says. “I worked with this one child in kindergarten who was very resistant to me, and I always felt like I wasn’t going to bond with him. Then, on my last day, he hugged me for the first time, and he told me I really helped him but he had just wanted to give me a hard time.

“I used to worry about how I could help him, and it was a big thing for him. To know that he’s learning and progressing was beautiful,” she says. “It made my day.”

Rivera, who began classes in the School of Education as a non-matriculated student, credits three of the School of Education faculty with making a difference for her: Jennifer Gordon, Elizabeth Anderson and Candace Mulcahy.

After taking Mulcahy’s course, Rivera decided that she was interested in special education. “Although I have always been my own motivator, Liz, Jenny and Candace always supported me in all of my accomplishments, which was a great reminder that I was heading in the right path,” she says.

An active member of the Kappa Delta Pi honor society, Rivera volunteered for the Literacy Alive program in the Johnson City School District during her master’s program. She also student-taught third grade at Homer Brink Elementary School for a semester and in early kindergarten, kindergarten, first- and fifth-grade special education classes.

She is an absolute natural in the classroom, according to Gordon, an associate professor of education.

In many ways, Rivera was way ahead of the curve here, Gordon says. “She is just such a natural presence in a classroom with children—completely comfortable in a warm authority role.”

During her two semesters of student teaching, Rivera created labor-intensive projects, such as making books with students in an arts integration class.

“She had them create a book on the human life cycle from birth through adulthood, and I witnessed her as an absolute natural and saw her personality come through with the children,” she says. “She has a fantastic sense of humor and warmth, and the children were all excited about these books. She showed a wonderful sense of allowing children to be children, then stretching them beyond what might be seen as a limitation.”

What sets Rivera apart from many others, Gordon says, is her sophistication in the classroom. “Many young teachers feel the need to contain the excitement children bring to learning, and she is not one of those,” she says. “She is very much a mature presence in the classroom, and she understands the importance of education very deeply. Not everybody gets it, but she does.”

Respectful and open to feedback, Rivera makes the most out of every situation, Gordon says. “Every challenge spurs her to work harder,” Gordon said.

“Our program has offered her the knowledge base in terms of pedagogy so she can articulate what she intuitively knew anyway.”

Though she’s adaptable, moving away from her family for the first time when she enrolled at Binghamton as an undergraduate was hard. “I’m very flexible and try to adapt very quickly wherever I’m at,” Rivera says. “My biggest struggle as a whole was getting used to being away from home. It was a big transition. I have three older brothers, and I’m the youngest. It was tough. Everything was so structured. On your own, you have to learn to manage your own time and be responsible. It’s a whole different game plan.”

As an EOP student, Rivera took advantage of its summer program, which helped her adjust to the school environment. “It helped me become familiar with what college life was like,” she says. “It was nice to have that, and it made my transition much smoother. It allowed me to meet people, and when classes started in the fall, I was already familiar with people and where I was going.”

Rivera didn’t want to graduate without giving credit where credit is due. In addition to the faculty at Binghamton, her family made the grade. “My greatest support throughout my entire college experience has been my family: my mom, dad and brothers,” she says. “They have been my guidance, my motivation and my unconditional support. When things seemed too hard for me to handle, I knew I could always turn to them for redirection.”