Learning to Dream Big: An Interview with Lissette Rivera

This past month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lissette Rivera, first grade team lead at Brilla Veritas. It was inspiring to learn more about her background, favorite teaching moments, and her dreams for her students. Check out highlights from our conversation below! 

Can you tell me a little bit about your background? 

I’m from the South Bronx, born and raised. I grew up in this zip code. My parents immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico, so I’m first generation here. That’s a big part of my identity. I really associate with my Hispanic heritage and I’m very proud of it. I speak Spanish fluently. I speak it with my parents and my students’ families. It has been really helpful to build those relationships. 

I come from a working class family, and they’ve always instilled in me those beliefs of working hard for everything I’ve done. This has always pushed me to meet or exceed expectations and to dream big. It is nice to come and serve in the same area where I am from. 

How did you end up teaching at Brilla? 

After college, I knew I wanted to serve, but I was trying to figure out how to do it. I never thought that I would be teaching, but I found out about Seton Teaching Fellows and I realized it was literally down the block from me! I realized this is what I wanted to do, because I wanted to stay close to my family and I wanted to serve the community where I am from. So I applied to be a Seton Teaching Fellow… and they selected me! I’ve been here for the past five years. 

At what point did you know that you wanted to remain a teacher? 

I loved my year as a Fellow and it is what made me want to be a teacher. 

I have taught the same cohort of students for four years, until this year as a first grade teacher. I was their teacher as a first grade fellow until fourth grade: first grade fellow, second grade, third grade, and fourth grade teacher. I have some pretty strong relationships with those families. 

I remember once in El Camino a student wrote an apology letter in his first grade phonetic spelling, sharing how he is grateful for a teacher that listens to him even though he gets in trouble. He shared in the letter about how his father was in jail and his mother was struggling at home. This is a student who would never speak, but he was able to write that on a piece of paper. When I asked him about it he started crying and he shared his whole life. I realized that just by giving this student the space that he needed and helping him to see that he was loved and cared for, he was able to open up to me and share about his struggles. That was the moment that I thought “If I can make a difference in one child’s life, then my mission is done.” After that moment I knew I wanted to continue working with students. Every student has some type of trauma or background that affects them, so to be able to walk with them and give them the tools to manage that on their own is incredible. I just love being a teacher. 

Once that first touchpoint was made with this student, I noticed a change in him. I can see very clearly his growth in maturity from first grade to fourth grade. He still has many of the same struggles, but the way he is able to process them has grown. He has become a model scholar.

Why have you stayed at Brilla all these years? 

I never thought that I would be a teacher, but from the very beginning of my time at Brilla, I felt very supported and welcome. It was the first time that I worked at a place where there were people that looked like me who were Hispanic and diverse. I loved working with people who I could really relate to. Even those who I didn’t relate to on that level were so open and willing to learn about others. That was really big for me, not just from them to be open to learning, but for me to learn about different cultures and work with people who are so inviting and welcoming. 

I felt very at home at Brilla and very supported by the administration and leadership. But most importantly, my coworkers. I have created amazing friendships at Brilla. Everyone is here to support each other and that has happened every single year, even through Covid. I think Covid made those relationships stronger. Brilla is a big family. The community and culture has kept me here time and time again.

What is one of your favorite moments from teaching? 

My favorite moments are seeing those ‘aha!’ moments when a student finally gets something. I had this one student who really struggled with reading sight words for years from second through fourth grade, through no fault of his own. He just needed extra support. I remember when he finally got it; everyone in the class stood up and clapped for him. They got so excited! This student was usually so quiet because he knows that he struggles. He was jumping for joy and saying, “I am the champ!” Seeing those small victories celebrating those wins for all my students has been my favorite.

What are your biggest dreams for your students? 

I always tell my students to dream big and I mean it when I tell them that. I truly think that my biggest dream is not that they have the most successful job. Personally, my biggest dream for them is to truly, genuinely know that they are capable of achieving whatever goals they have, and that they have someone in their corner who is rooting for them and who wants them to get there. Growing up in this neighborhood… I know it’s hard. There is so much adversity thrown our way. I want students to realize that they have the potential to be someone great and to know that they are loved and that someone is going to support them. That’s my dream for them. As a teacher it is so easy to be bogged down by little tasks, and we forget that our job is to help our students become good people… My biggest dream for my students is that they know they are capable of achieving their goals. 

What would you like people to know about your community in the Bronx? 

When you come to work at Brilla or any school where you are not from the community and you don’t understand their culture, it is important to understand that you are not going to be the savior. If you are coming here to solve their problems and be the savior, it is not going to work out for you. Your job is to equip them with the tools that they need to be successful, but not to fix their problems. It’s so important to understand that their differences are a part of who they are and it makes them who they are. Our job is not to change them or to fix them, but to love them through it, and to help them use those challenges and those parts of their identity to overcome obstacles in the future, to see them not as stumbling blocks, but as stepping stones. 

Don’t lower expectations for the students. Keep those expectations high and they will meet them. Never give up on a kid, because so many people give up on these kids. That’s a problem. They need people who they know are going to root for them. That’s our job as teachers. Once they know they are loved and cared for, I promise, the rest will fall into place. 

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