Newark native saw a need for bilingual special education teachers



When Mily Cepeda returned to Newark to teach in 2019, she felt like it was a meaningful homecoming.

“I had taught in Florida, but still felt like I had to go back to Newark and pay next,” said Cepeda, a Newark native and a graduate of East Side High School. “It was my vocation.

Cepeda has also seen the need for bilingual special education teachers – she speaks Spanish and works with many students in grades five to eight who face both the language barrier and learning with a disability.

She started teaching two decades ago, but was in first grade at Louise A. Spencer Elementary School in Newark when the pandemic hit. As in many communities across the United States, Newark’s black and Hispanic neighborhoods have been particularly affected. As of June, nearly 360 out of 100,000 Newark residents had died from COVID, twice the national average.

Cepeda was one of more than 275 educators, parents and students who wrote in Chalkbeat when, as part of our partnership with Univision called Pandemic 360, we asked our readers in New York and Newark to tell us how the pandemic has had an impact on their school communities. . She spoke to Chalkbeat about her approach to visual education in a virtual world, the importance of strong relationships with parents, and why every teacher should take mental health first aid.

This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to return to Newark to teach, and what was your first year back like?

I was born and raised in Newark and in our public schools. I started teaching in 2000 before moving to Florida, where I took a break and looked after my son. We both have a hemorrhagic disease: hemophilia. I felt I belonged to the class and decided to come back. I saw the need for bilingual special education, for teachers able to overcome both the language barrier and the learning challenges. It was my vocation. I had dynamic teachers when I went through Newark Public Schools, and I wanted to pay next.

Mily Cepeda is in her 21st year of teaching.
Courtesy of Mily Cepeda

Newark Public Schools hired me in the fall of 2019 and was in the process of putting everything in place. My children were getting to know me and I had close communication with my parents in Spanish and English. Then comes March 2020. I still remember my son, who is in high school, frantically calling me one day in March to tell me his school was telling everyone to come home. Our school made the call shortly thereafter.

I took everything out of my classroom, packed my Jeep, threw everything on my living room floor and cleaned everything. Then I took a breath and said, ‘OK, what am I going to do now?’ I immediately started printing and collecting packages for my students.

How did you adapt to teach your students in a virtual world?

Me and other teachers in my school were masked and gloved to hand out Chromebooks to our students when this all started. I also designed and delivered take-out kits for each of my students – literacy kits, pencils, paper, and other supplies that I knew all of my kids wouldn’t have at home. It has been a very frustrating time for my children, many of whom are very visual learners.

I had to put a lot of students and their parents on FaceTime during the transition, trying to tell them why it was crucial for kids to sign up for class every day. After the live lessons, I spent several hours a day recording Spanish and English videos of lessons and teaching students how to do their homework step by step. I often only filmed my hands filling out worksheets – again, my students are very visual learners. I would often sit next to them in class and show them what I wanted them to do, then watch them try to copy me.

You mentioned that many members of your school community faced challenges during the pandemic – and even before. What did your students experience and how did you respond to their families?

I know parents who lost their jobs, who were kicked out of their homes. Some students do not have enough food. And especially at first, it was heartbreaking to see how many of my kids were having trouble with technology. It took a lot of advocacy to get them set up with Wi-Fi and a lot of coaching to get them comfortable with Chromebooks.

We have all lost people, family and friends to COVID. Teachers too – I know a lot of teachers who must have played poker when they log into class every day. You need to be there for your students and families, even when you have lost a loved one yourself. I believe a lot of teachers deserve an Oscar after this year. We all had to act. It was hard to be happy, but every week I would put on silly hats and sing on YouTube – whatever I could to make my kids smile no matter what they were up to.

How do you think your school community has supported students and educators struggling with the loss of loved ones or financial hardship?

Our guidance counseling service meets with students every morning. The teachers have truly been community coordinators in many ways. We communicate with families on COVID tests, on food banks, on financial assistance programs. There are many resources out there, but the way to access them doesn’t always make it a home.

For our family, this year has been difficult. My son and I continued home schooling because we have hemophilia. We have spent so much of this year so scared and careful. We all – my husband, my son and I – had COVID in January and we were devastated. I was so angry, but we fought for a week and a half and succeeded. So many people, including my own family and friends, did not survive this pandemic. As a school family, we need to recognize this and treat each other with equal care and compassion as we all try to move forward.

Mily Cepeda said part of the teaching challenge this year was figuring out how to create visual lessons.
Courtesy of Mily Cepeda

Parent-teacher relationships were essential inclement weather this year in many communities. How has the pandemic affected your relationships and what have you learned?

I feel like we’re best friends, I know it sounds a little cheesy. I have told my parents since the start of the pandemic that we are all resilient and we are here together, so let’s make it work. I have spent a lot of time calling and dealing with relatives this year. Honestly, I feel like we’ve become a lot closer. We need to communicate more because their students are adapting to so many things. And they have so many questions.

When I get a random text from a parent, I feel joy because they were comfortable enough to contact me, and now we can have a conversation and start a relationship. If they know me and trust me, they can better help me teach their child. If you asked me for the only ingredient in a good relationship, I would say communication is all you need.

What specific mental health and learning supports do you want schools to add, given the challenges this year?

I have witnessed many things this year: crying parents, children talking about the loss of loved ones. I decided this year that I needed to find more opportunities to learn more about mental health and wellness. I took a Hemophilia Foundation mental health first aid course. I think educators have a role to play in recognizing when a student may be in crisis and helping them take that first step, to open a dialogue.

I hope schools provide more counseling opportunities for students and more mental health focused activities, but I also really want to see all teachers trained in mental health first aid. I know I will share my knowledge with my colleagues this year.

Is there an element of teaching during a pandemic that you hope to continue after life returns to some sense of normalcy?

I’m getting a PhD (actually graduating in a few weeks!) And focused my studies on parents of chronically ill students and their resilience. I hope the blended learning model is something that districts continue to offer, especially for children with chronic conditions who often have to miss in-person classes. I also hope that the new or renewed societal focus on mental health is here to stay.



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