When Carolina Bañuelos was in fourth grade, she took second place in a citywide Colorado essay contest for her piece about being proud to be bilingual. “I remember writing that being bilingual gave me more opportunities to communicate with people,” she explained.

Now a junior in high school, Bañuelos’ life has changed a lot—she’s been enrolling in college-level courses since she was a freshman, and planning for college and potential careers in education, fire science or criminal justice. Her pride in her bilingualism, however, and her focus on her future are in large part due to an inspiring, loving teacher, Paty Abril-Gonzalez.

Abril-Gonzalez was Bañuelos’ and her classmates’ teacher through four grade transitions from second through fifth grades. Moving up with each grade level allowed the class, their families and their teacher to form a tight bond.

“Moving up with kids was insightful,” she said. “We got to build in new ways, and I got to see them from new perspectives.”

The experience transformed the lives of her students, who are all bilingual and Latinx.

“She guided me through what feels like my whole childhood,” Bañuelos said. “She’s way different from other teachers. She took her time to get to know us and our families, and she is always concerned with how we are doing. She has her own family, but she still manages to make sure we’re OK. I love that about her—we’ve always been a part of her life, too.”

Indeed, the students remain an important part of Abril-Gonzalez’s life. Her former students are the focus of her dissertation on creating spaces and reflecting on past memories. Her research also focuses on the role of student voices and love in the classroom. A highlight of Abril-Gonzalez’s work was to return to their former school playgrounds and schools weekly to meet with eight former students and to once again focus on their hopes and dreams in an effort to transform other classrooms.

Her research involves validating and listening to students’ perspectives on the education system, which was not created with bilingual students in mind. Yet her study finds that there is hope in dismantling racist and negative assumption about students by acknowledging students’ past, present and future. She found we can reimagine teacher education in ways that recognize teachers for getting to know their students inside and outside of the classroom. In Abril-Gonzalez’s reimagined classrooms, all students feel valued, heard and loved.

“It’s really a dream come true to do this work,” she said. “I am committed to these kids and their families. As their teacher, I felt like they deserved the world, and I still do.”

Illustration of Abril-Gonzalez' students

Abril-Gonzalez's hand-drawn illustration of the students from her class and research.