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Answering the “Call”

Often, it’s a long and winding road that leads an individual to their passion or life’s work. Combine that with what most seasoned educators define as “a true calling” to teach. Add a unique opportunity to partner with a local university’s college of education, and Denton ISD hopes the intersection will answer the shortage of bilingual/ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers giving our students and teachers an advantage.


Fifth graders at W.S. Ryan Elementary have no idea the path that Ursula Connell, a bilingual instructional aide, has taken to proudly offer extra assistance to the small group of mathematicians.


“She’s just crazy about numbers,” said Mauricio Loyola, fifth grader. “But, I’ve learned that math is fun and I might be really good at it.”


Ursula Connell teaching fractions

Born in Spain, Ms. Connell’s parents immigrated to Peru when she was very young. Wanting the best education possible for their daughter, they enrolled her in a local school that offered her 15 years of formal education completely in German.

Upon graduation with her degree in finance she worked until the age of 24 at a corporate bank, processing loans and mortgages. As is commonplace in the world of finance, her bank merged with another and her manager promised her a new position if she could learn to speak English. She immediately enrolled in a two-year program in Boston, spending years mastering the language.


“As you might imagine, my native language is Spanish. I learned everything in German, and speaking English to people in Boston was confusing,” she laughed. “Their accent and my accent was just too much for my mind to comprehend.”


Her aunt offered her an opportunity to work in real estate in Texas, promising that it would be a good combination of using her Spanish and financial skills. Once here, she married and had two children and re-entered banking.

It was her father-in-law, an educator, who persuaded her to volunteer alongside him helping struggling math students at a school in McKinney. She was immediately hooked and began the steps to earn her certification and complete her student teaching to become a classroom teacher.

Patty Marquez, a bilingual instruction aide across town at Borman Elementary School, tells a similar story. Originally from Mexico, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Human Resources Administration and began working for a large corporation when her husband’s company transferred them to Florida.  

Patty Marquez works with bilingual math students
Moving up in his profession, he was then transferred to Texas where she found the lack of speaking English prohibited her from finding her dream job. She applied and was employed for the first few years serving students in the Borman cafeteria. After starting a family, she realized the importance of instilling the value of education in her own children. 

While working days, she enrolled in the district’s free Adult Education courses to learn fluent English. The more time she spent serving students on campus, the more she realized that she felt happier when she was surrounded by young people. “Working in human resources brings a lot of adult problems, working with children just brings me joy,” said Ms. Marquez.


Ms. Marquez is currently pursuing her teaching certification through an alternative process and hopes one day to be at the head of her classroom.


The dream to become a teacher is becoming a reality for many in the district through the district’s TEACHDenton program. A new partnership to target those who wish to pursue teaching in a bilingual class to meet a growing shortage of teachers in high need areas recently received a boost.


Texas Woman’s University received permission from the State Board for Educator Certification to allow students who are completing their student teaching, which is required, to simultaneously be employed as teaching assistants in classrooms if the placement is consistent with their targeted area for certification. The opportunity to earn a salary while completing school is a key piece of attracting adults who are changing careers or pursuing their passion while raising a family. 


“The 50/50 program, allows student teachers to be hired as aides during their student teaching experience,” said Dr. Michelle Williams-Laing, Director of Professional Development in the College of Professional Education at TWU. “Denton ISD has already hired eight EC-6 Core Subject/Bilingual student teachers to work as teaching assistants while completing their certification.”


To ensure that the quality of instruction is also exceptional, the university and district put candidates for this specific focus area through an extra set of steps before they are accepted.

 Ursula Connell and Patty Marquez teach bilingual math students

“We’ve set up a Bilingual/ESL Teacher Recruitment Committee so that we can be very strategic and intentional regarding the educators we seek to employ for our 50/50 positions,” said Ms. Tracy Johnson, coordinator of human resources. “We moved up our window to extend contracts, offered early ‘letters of assurance’ to student teachers who demonstrated the skill to command a classroom, and completed a more extensive interview process.”


The process includes a classroom lesson demonstration with a group of 10-12 students from a lesson plan based on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) prepared in both English and Spanish.


“We understand that serving this population of student requires a good understanding of teaching pedagogy, the fluency of a second language and the heart to take care of our kids,” said Ms. Johnson. “It takes a special passion and a special individual to work with some of our students who most often arrive at a critical time in their educational career.”


For all involved – students, teachers and professors – the opportunity to meld the passion for teaching and the value of education is making a lasting impression turning dreams into a reality.