IDEA Rio Grande Valley: #ClassroomHeroes

Joni Vicinaiz’ Journey to the Classroom

Part One: Humble Beginnings

I am a science teacher today because of my own 7th-grade science teacher, Ms. Scott. I remember her saying on more than one occasion, “Girls, you are the future. The world needs you, so I want to see all my girls impacting our scientific community one day.” I was only in her class for one year, but she ignited something in me that made me want to enroll in the only science high school near Brownville, Texas – where I grew up.

Both of my parents were life-long educators, so when I told them I wanted to prioritize science and attend the science academy, they were on board with me riding a bus to and from Mercedes, Texas every day. The bus would pick up students from all the little towns, so it would take us an hour to get to school, and then an hour to get home. My school did not have AP for All, like IDEA does, but all of my teachers treated us like we were in AP courses.

It was very rigorous, very high expectations. I’ll never forget my junior English teacher. She would assign a paper and I would have to revise it ten times to make sure it was perfect. A punctuation mark would be missing, or I spelled a word incorrectly, or used it in the wrong context. My high school experience taught me what it meant to dedicate yourself to learning.

Part Two: Shoulders of Giants

Despite all the great teachers I had in high school, the best educator I have ever known is my mom, Maria Vicinaiz. When I was growing up, we could be at a restaurant or shopping mall, and inevitably, someone would come up to her say, “Hi, Ms. Vicinaiz! Remember me?!” The space between her eyebrows would scrunch up, and you could tell she was cycling through years of students in her head. Remarkably, she remembered nearly every former student and the year they were in her class. Everyone was always blown away, myself included. After she caught up with them for a bit, I’d ask her, “Who was that?” and she would share their backstory. I was lucky to witness my mother’s compassion and love for her students—past and present—my entire life. Throughout her teaching career, my mom prided herself in building lasting relationships with her students, their parents, siblings, and grandparents. Toda la Familia. Watching these interactions and hearing her stories helped me understand the value of building relationships once I became a teacher. 

I remember one time a parent of a student in my mom’s class came to volunteer in her classroom, and they got to talking. My mom found out that the parent did not have a working vehicle. Without hesitation, my mom tossed her the keys to her car so she could go grocery shopping. My mom was always gathering clothes and shoes to give to her students. She’s always been the type of person who would give you the shirt off her back. 
My mom modeled for me the heart of education and showed me how caring for your community and building authentic relationships with students and their families is the heartbeat of teaching. A few years ago, I received a message from a woman on Facebook who asked if I was related to Ms. Vicinaiz. When I told her I was, she shared something I will never forget – during the younger years of her life, the only time she ever felt loved and the only time she felt safe was in my mom’s classroom. That is the heart of education and is what forms the foundation of my educational philosophy as a teacher at IDEA Public Schools. 

Part Three: Call to the Classroom

After I graduated high school, I left the Rio Grande Valley to study biology at UTSA in San Antonio. Instead of graduating and serving my community, I got married very young and was pregnant with my son at 21 years old. By the time my son was one, I had moved back to the Valley a single mother, without a college degree, living with my parents. I felt defeated and hopeless, but my mom and my dad never accepted that. They supported me and pushed me, regularly telling me, Let’s go! you got to finish that degree for your son!” It makes me emotional to think about it because I would never have had the motivation to finish my bachelor’s degree in Biology without their support.  
From the time I was in middle school, I knew I wanted to go into science, and shortly after I graduated college, my mom told me she believed education was in my blood and that I would be a great science teacher. With her encouragement and support, that year, I tried out substitute teaching at the local school district. It was challenging, but it felt great to be in a school, in a classroom, working with kids. By that time, my son was four years old and ready for school, so I started searching for a teaching position at a school he could attend. I remember seeing an ad in the newspaper for a new school district called IDEA Public Schools. When I called the number in the ad (that’s how we applied for jobs back in those days!)there weren’t any teaching positions open but they were looking to fill substitute teacher roles that could lead to fulltime position down the road. Based on everything I read and heard about IDEA, I knew I wanted the job.

On day one, I fell in love with the campus, I loved working with the students, and I could sense the students enjoyed having me as their teacher. The staff started noticing, too, and within a few weeks, I was receiving more substitute requests than I could manage! When a 6th-grade science teaching position opened that December, I jumped at the chance. The interview process was intense, with lots of hard questions, sample lessons, and role-plays. I remember the day before we left for winter break, the hiring manager and Assistant Principal of Instruction asked to speak with me. Again. My heart was racing as I knocked on the conference room door.  

Part Four: Accomplishing a Mission Impossible

All I remember was my Assistant Principal say “Ms. Vicinaiz, you really impressed us. The joy you exude when working with students is infectious. We’d love for you to join the IDEA Quest Team and Family!” I could not believe it. I knew at that moment that I had found my place inside the classroom. For the next 13 years, I continued to grow as a science teacher at Quest, honing my craft, and building relationships, and finding my heartbeat, just like my mom taught me. Then, in March 2020, everything changed.  

The COVID-19 pandemic had reached the United States, and schools across the country were closed. As we transitioned to distance learning, I tried to prepare myself mentally, but nothing was the same. Resources were limited, and none of my previous lessons translated to the virtual space, so I started creating lessons from scratch. The early days of the pandemic were some of the hardest of my career. Everyone struggled to adjust to teaching and learning from home. Probably most challenging, the thing that fueled my passion for teaching – the relationships and human touch – started to feel impossible. I had years of teaching experience under my belt, but most days, I felt like a first-year teacher.  

 As the weeks turned into months, we all started getting the hang of things. I remember a few months into the pandemic opening up my virtual classroom and seeing my students’ smiling faces. My students are the real superheroes. In an uncertain time, they continued to show up, trust the process, and believe in their teachers. They are my motivation. In return, I check in on them and their families, tell them that I love them, and thank them for showing up—just as my mom would have done—just like all classroom heroes do every single day.