While I was home for the holidays, I thought a lot about the ways the people of North Hollywood have shaped my path. As a Latino male whose parents did not have the opportunity to go to college, it would have been very easy for me to choose a familiar path – graduate high school, find a job, and start a family. But several of my teachers opened my eyes to the broader choices I could also have if I wanted them and worked hard. Because of them, I felt confident enough to dream big. 

Mrs. Regina Marquez, Mr. Mario Rivera, and Ms. Debbie Alpert all encouraged me to think about the world beyond our classrooms. They constantly pushed me to imagine a future for myself outside of our local colleges and think about the many walks of life that make up our world. And perhaps most importantly, they instilled in me the desire to give back. They taught me to value community involvement and showed me the importance of helping others access the same opportunities that I did.

With the encouragement and support of these incredible educators, I attended community college and then transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara. There, I had the chance to live in the dorms, join sports, participate in many extra-curricular activities and study abroad in Paris. In short, I had the best time of my life.

During my years at UCSB, I began to realize how I could live out the values that Mrs. Marquez, Mr. Rivera, and Ms. Alpert instilled in me.  I had the chance to visit a number of local public schools — a few miles down the road but worlds away from our pristine quads and classrooms. Seeing the discrepancies in academic achievement and facilities connected directly to the classes I’d been taking ignited my passion for social justice. As I learned more, I began to view the classroom as the singular most powerful place to have the kind of impact I imagined. 

After I graduated, I joined Teach For America, an organization that enlists recent grads and career-changers to teach in low-income communities and become leaders in the movement for educational equity. I spent four years in the classroom, served as a principal teacher in residence, then went on to earn my master’s in Education Policy and Administration. Now, I now serve as assistant principal at PUC Community Charter Middle School in the San Fernando Valley.  Every day, I feel blessed to be able to give back to the community that gave me so much.

Looking at my students, I see so much of myself – from the community and culture we share to the challenges we’ve faced. In my own academic life, I’ve questioned if I had what it took to be successful. Studying never came easy to me and there were so many cultural messages pulling me away from applying myself in school. But I also know how crucial the support of my teachers was in overcoming these obstacles, and I strive every day to be a role model, an advocate, and a support system for my kids the way Mrs. Marquez, Mr. Rivera, and Ms. Alpert were for me.

The role of committed educators in helping kids dream big and realize those dreams cannot be overstated. So whether you’re looking to make an impact yourself or know someone who is, consider teaching. Together, we can give our kids the futures they deserve. 

Claudio Estrada is an assistant principal in Los Angeles and 2010 Teach For America alumnus. To apply to teach, visit www.teachforamerica.org/apply.