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“If Ms. Perez can do it, I can do it!”

Shakira Perez: Hartford’s 2020 Teacher of the Year

Shakira Perez, winner of the 2020 Teacher of the Year Award for Hartford Public Schools hopes the recognition gives students something to strive for; an example “of what you can achieve with hard work and perseverance”, she tells (CTLN). It’s a feat that comes with additional meaning for her, “…to be an Afro-Latina (and) Teacher of the Year means that my students can look in the mirror and say, “If Ms. Perez can do it, I can do it!”

In the first-ever online event due to COVID-19 social distancing orders hosted by the district, the award was presented this month to Ms.Perez, an English teacher at Classical Magnet School, by Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez and 2019 Teacher of the Year Narciso Moquete during the virtual ceremony.

The competition began with 37 teachers nominated by their schools to participate in this year’s selection process. Each nominee underwent an intensive screening and interview process conducted by a Teacher of the Year Committee comprised of curriculum directors, Hartford Federation of Teachers officials, and previous award winners.

All nominees are tenured K-12 HPS teachers who exhibit exemplary teaching skills, show commitment to the belief that all children can learn, and are active in community and humanitarian affairs.

After its review, the committee selected three finalists, who were then asked to complete a series of written essay questions for the final evaluation

“Teacher of the Year gives us an opportunity to express our deep gratitude to our educators for the work they do every day to ensure the success of all our beautiful and capable students,” said Superintendent Torres-Rodriguez. “I congratulate our 2020 Teacher of the Year and thank all our teachers for their partnership and support.”

“Becoming Hartford’s Teacher of the Year feels like I won this award, not for myself, but for my city.”

Shakira Perez, winner of the 2020 Teacher of the Year Award for Hartford Public Schools

For Ms. Perez, the award is a coming full circle of sorts as she is the 8th and 12th grade English teacher at Classical Magnet School; the school program she graduated from in 1995.

The Hartford native attended kindergarten and first grade at Kinsella Elementary, second grade at Batchelder Elementary and third through sixth grade at Mary M. Hooker School. She was accepted to the Classical Magnet Program, housed at Quirk Middle School, for grades seven and eight, and continued with the program through grade twelve at Hartford Public High School.

Ms. Perez told the Hartford Courant that she works to “give back what was given to me” — a solid base for college, the ability to read and think critically, to solve problems, and to communicate effectively.

Lessons Beyond The Classroom

Ms. Perez addressing students at a school assembly

Ms. Perez’s relationship with students goes beyond the classroom. She was born and raised in Hartford. The experience of having lived in the Rice Heights Housing projects in the Behind the Rocks section of Hartford helps her understand the struggles many students face.

“I feel like I bring the struggle with me,” Perez told the Hartford Courant. “I saw things. I saw drug dealers. One summer I was sitting in front of my friend’s house and all of a sudden there’s a drive-by shooting. I’ve seen a dead body. I’ve seen these things. I know these things.” That’s why she can sincerely tell her students, “You can be so much more…I know that from personal experience.”

Ms. Perez recalls a time when she asked a student to get into the proper uniform and was giving her a hard time about it. She remembers that he (the student) shared there were other students (white students) that were always out of uniform, and no one ever said anything to them. When she says the student asked her, “Is it because I am Black?” She answered, “It’s absolutely because you’re Black!” They later had a conversation about the incident, and she explained to him that as a young Black male, her expectations are higher because she wants him to be the best he can be. “This world is not kind to young Black/brown males”, she tells CTLN. “We have to break the cycle. Wearing your school uniform now will keep you from wearing a prison uniform in the future.”

The Child of Two Worlds

Ms. Perez is a proud Hartford native with Boricua roots.

“Although I didn’t grow up in Puerto Rico, I spent many summers and a couple of Christmases there”, she remembers. “I got to experience coast life in Santa Isabel with my mother’s side of the family and the mountain life in Gurabo with my father’s side of the family.”

One of the most vivid memories of island living for Ms. Perez is “Las Fiestas Patronales”, a week-long festival in Santa Isabel. “We would go every night and sing and dance to the point where my cousin and I would fall asleep sitting at a table waiting for our moms, but refusing to go home until the festival was over. Spending time in Puerto Rico also taught me the importance of family.”

“The look of surprise on my students’ faces always amuses me when they hear me speak Spanish or when I tell them I am Puerto Rican. And I mean, I get it. Here I am a dark-skinned woman with an Afro and to them, I look like a Black woman (which I am). And I celebrate all of it.” She continues, “I speak Spanish every chance I get and will wear African print often. I also make sure my students celebrate themselves… to be proud of who they are and where they come from.” That’s a lesson she also gives her children, “I remember the first time I celebrated Three Kings Day with my son and how excited he was about receiving “extra” gifts, but then having to explain to him the importance of the day and why it’s celebrated it in our culture. 

Ms. Perez takes her children (son and daughter) to Puerto Rico and exposes them to some of the same experiences she had as a child. “My hope is that carry the same sense of pride and identity within them as well.”

Shakira is a true believer in being a lifelong learner. In 2007, she became a fellow of the Central Connecticut Writing Project, where she remains heavily involved with the reading department at Central Connecticut State University. Through the CT Writing Project, she has had the opportunity to present at CCSU’s Literacy Essentials Conference, Idea Share, and the Latinos in Action Youth Conference. In July 2017, Shakira, along with the director of the CT Writing Project, led a workshop on promoting reading and writing in and beyond the classroom at the European Literacy Conference in Madrid, Spain. In 2019, she was a recipient of the Funds for Teachers grant and traveled to Oxford, England, and Copenhagen, Denmark to attend and present workshops on creating possibilities for writing on the secondary level at the International Roundtable Symposium and the European Literacy Conference, respectively.

Shakira lives in Hartford with her two children, Josiah and Scarlett.

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