Succeeding—and Paying It Forward—as an International MTRT

by | November 8, 2023

Raissa Renacia

When Raissa Renacia arrived from the Philippines in 2019 to teach math in Ector County, Texas, she had a lot of questions.

From where to find rice to how to manage an American classroom, Renacia found herself wishing she had one person to give her answers. Today, in her third year in the Master Team Reach Teacher (MTRT) role, she’s become that mentor for other international teachers.

Renacia served as a senior high school head teacher in the Philippines for nine years before arriving in Texas in 2019 with a doctorate and a desire to try something new—something that did not involve becoming an administrator, which had felt like her only career advancement option.

Toward the end of her first year at Bonham Middle School in Ector County, Renacia’s principal asked if she would be interested in the new roles coming as the school began Opportunity Culture implementation. But Renacia felt unsure, despite having coached others in the Philippines, that she was ready to take on a role that she didn’t fully understand, even with its significant pay supplement.

Then she was placed on a Multi-Classroom Leader (MCL) team with a former high school teacher as the MCL, and she found the support she got to be invaluable.

In many cases, what she learned from her MCL, Samantha Baker, were tweaks in how to handle her classroom, such as focusing on the first five minutes to set the tone for the whole class or trying the familiar-to-American-teachers “I need all eyes on me, track me in three, two, one” refrain to get students’ full attention.

When Baker also pushed her to apply for an Opportunity Culture role, Renacia still resisted taking on her own team, because she wanted to learn more from her MCL. The MTRT role, though, felt like an ideal fit, allowing her to continue working with Baker while coaching another teacher.

The district likes having the MCL and MTRT roles as a key to reaching more students and fostering teacher growth, said Jaime Miller, executive director of talent development. “They’re the bridge between potential and achievement, making real impacts in classrooms and ensuring that every student and teacher can thrive.” 

As an MTRT, Renacia teaches three math classes, then gets a block to work with the teacher she coaches in that teacher’s classroom. Additionally, she assists Baker in leading team meetings, preparing the analysis of student data and helping to design lessons.

Renacia sometimes goes, at Baker’s request, into other team classrooms to help coach other teachers, and Baker does the same with Renacia’s mentee.

Renacia has consistently been assigned other international teachers as her mentees—from Turkey, Spain, and, this year, the Philippines. Despite their varied backgrounds and years of experience, they shared many of the same needs and initial difficulties adjusting to U.S. classrooms.

“Number one is classroom management,” Renacia said. “Different countries have different cultures, and their first comment would always be, ‘this is not how we do it back home.’ Which I also felt in my first year. The other thing is understanding how the TEKs (the Texas state standards) in the curriculum is done. Because even though math is math, worldwide, the TEKs in Texas is still different from how we do it back home.”

—Raissa Renacia, on the first coaching international teachers need

Often, what teachers need can feel very basic to American teachers, but it wasn’t basic to Renacia or her mentees.

“In places like where I come from, teachers can walk in the classroom, and the students would be quiet and wait for the teacher to start. Here, you’ve got to have everybody’s attention for you to effectively do your teaching. That’s the first struggle. And then the other one is, sometimes teachers, depending on where you come from, they’re more of a lecture type. It doesn’t work with 20 kids.

“Those two are very challenging at first, because eventually they can adjust easily with curriculum, and they can apply their strategies like they do in their home country, but the classroom management is the hardest part for them to adjust.”

Renacia learned much about how to coach her mentees from being coached by Baker, but she also goes through monthly trainings for her Opportunity Culture role, which have been invaluable, she said, as have trainings her mentee can attend.

Along with instructional coaching, Renacia enjoys helping her mentees with personal transition issues, such as finding familiar foods, figuring out transportation, and identifying good places to live. While those aren’t typical MTRT duties, “I’m very keen with those…so I’m not just coaching and helping them because it’s my job, but it’s more of an additional paying it forward to the people that helped me when I started.”

When Renacia began at Bonham, the school went through significant teacher turnover.

“I got kids asking me questions on the first day: ‘When are you leaving? I’ll give you a month. You’re going to leave.’ And I don’t know how to respond because I’ve never been asked those questions before.”

Without a mentor of her own, Renacia had to ask around to understand how to respond, and learned that students had cycled through multiple teachers. “That is when I understand I need to be somehow supportive of them because they’ve been to five different teachers in 10 weeks.”

So, why did Renacia stay? It’s a question students asked her as well.

“Kids were like, ‘miss, why are you a teacher? Don’t tell me you want to make a difference, ‘cause everybody says that.’ Like, they’ve been hurt, like they’ve heard that too many times, and for them it’s probably more of a script. But I tell my kids I’m here because I know I am capable of helping you succeed. And the kids were like, ‘how? I never passed a state test before.’ And I tell them, ‘welcome to my class. This is the year you’re going to pass. And I show them every year my data from the previous year. … I try to build confidence with these kids because at the end of the day, they’re the one testing, not me. I can teach them. And they can learn. But they gotta take the test, and I think them being confident plays a big factor.”

The data she shares shows her and Baker’s algebra students posted a 100 percent passing rate on the state algebra exam and a 96 percent passing rate for the state eighth-grade math exam. Algebra students, she notes, have an especially rigorous curriculum because they skip the eighth-grade math class, thus covering two years of instruction in a year.

When schools have the funding and team size that allow them to have both the MCL role and MTRTs on MCL teams, the partnership greatly benefits students, Renacia said. “If the MTRT and MCL work together, it can make a very big difference.”

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