Teacher Talk

Betsy Rivera, Environmental Charter High School
Teacher enjoys working with students who mirror her background

Betsy Rivera is Green Ambassadors teacher at Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale. “I didn’t really grow up composting, recycling. I wanted to make it accessible to students with backgrounds similar to mine."

If you ask Betsy Rivera for a 30-second explanation of her job as a Green Ambassadors teacher at Environmental Charter High School (ECS) in Lawndale, she will tell you this: “It’s teaching ethics and sustainability related to food, energy, water and waste.”

But then there’s the ambassador part—taking what her students learn outside the classroom and “letting them improve the community, life on earth, and the environment,” Rivera said.

”We all teach our own subjects, and we make sure we know what everyone else is teaching so there’s not a lot of repetition. I don’t have to teach a lot of environmental science background. My class is more like the action piece. Now that we’ve heard about all these issues, what are you going to do? Our solutions are to take the message of sustainability out into the community.”

Teaching outside the classroom

Rivera, who started teaching in 2005, doesn’t have the typical job history. When people ask her how long she’s been a teacher, she noted they expect to hear how many years she’s been in the classroom. Her classrooms have often been outdoors. She got her start in Tulare County at the School of Science and Conservation.

“Every sixth grader in Tulare goes to this school in the mountains. It’s a weeklong program of hiking and walks and teachable moments outside. I did that my first year. I got to learn the ropes.”

She didn’t major in science, but found new confidence in teaching.

“I realized it was something that made sense to me, and I could help students like me make sense of it,” Rivera said. “I didn’t really grow up composting, recycling. I wanted to make it accessible to students with backgrounds similar to mine.”

Rivera also taught in Yosemite National Park as an outdoor educator. She took students on weeklong adventures.

“After about four years of doing that, rain or shine, I decided I was ready for the next adventure.”

Most people didn’t see her as a teacher, so she got a teaching credential and her master’s degree. Rivera also taught seventh-grade life science in Los Angeles where she learned another lesson.

“I needed a place where I had the freedom to take my students outside and do my lessons outside. Although it was intimidating to make the switch to ECS, I did it because I would fit in better than at a school in the middle of a city in a classroom with no windows, even.”

Mirroring her students

She enjoys teaching a message of environmental sustainability to students who mirror her background.

“My mom recycled not because it was good for the earth, but because it was 5 cents a can. We explain environmentally why we should do this because it’s good for our families and the environment.”

Rivera also talks food deserts with her students. “That really got to them because they realized, in the big picture, they didn’t have a choice of what they ate and teenagers hate being told what to do.”

Her parents are from Guatemala and met in the United States. Rivera was the family’s first child born here, in East Los Angeles. “It’s pretty similar to the background of my students, actually. … When they say it’s hard work, I know.”

“It’s hard to figure out college applications and applying for financial aid when your parents never did it,” Rivera said. “So ECS helps their students get to college—97 percent got accepted into four-year universities this year.”

‘Anything is possible’

How did she end up in education? “I had awesome teachers growing up that made me feel like I could do anything. Up until high school, I felt like I could be a doctor. And that was my dream and goal until I got into AP biology,” Rivera said.

But she didn’t “get” mitochondria, and “I gave up on this dream of being a doctor or being good at science. Until I started teaching science, I thought I wasn’t good at it. That stayed with me a long time. Even now, I’m not the smartest science nerd in the world. But I think once I was able to teach it and make sense of it and figure out how to explain it to students, that was something that drove me to be a teacher. Maybe I needed a different kind of explanation and I didn’t know how to ask for that. I try really hard now as a teacher to let my students know that anything is possible. It doesn’t mean that it’s not hard, or not fun.”

Teachers who inspire

She recalls the educators that made a difference in her life. Her fifth grade teacher once held a 1950s lip sync contest.

“I remember being Tina Turner and I’m pretty sure I whipped my head back and did Beyoncé before Beyoncé did that,” Rivera said. “I was a shy kid and he saw something in me that forced me to do that.”

In seventh grade, her teacher would pick on her to read. She finally asked him why.

“He said, ‘Because you’re a good reader.’ I’ll never forget that to this day,” Rivera said. Her teacher died several years ago from cancer. “I wish I’d told him that it made a huge difference in my life.”

Sustainable food

Her students make her proud. In December, they held a sustainable food cook-off with the help of a Voya Unsung Heroes grant.

The grant made it possible for her to give students money to shop for food needed to make a sustainable meal for the showcase.

“I worked on getting them to learn the nutritional benefits of the food they were going to buy and make, and to make sure they could justify why chicken soup was sustainable,” Rivera said.

She told students she wouldn’t answer questions at the cook-off. Anything the students needed from her had to be done ahead of time. “My student events staff were pulling their hair out at one point, but I was so happy and so proud at this event,” Rivera said. Her students were able to explain why it’s important to use wild-caught fish, or free-range chicken or to adopt a vegan diet. “I thought ‘no way, I made this all happen.’”

Rivera said planning the event was stressful. About 300 people wanted to taste the food. “I wasn’t sure the food was going to be delicious. I was worried about health code violations, the entertainment. Then the students asked me to sing one of my songs at the event—I took a pop song and made it about sustainable foods.” 

Relating through music

Rivera takes pop songs and makes them about sustainability or science topics. “I think that knowing pop culture is important to me as a teacher because I want to stay relevant. I’m cheesy. I’m aware of that, and I use songs that are more or less popular that give me street cred or student cred.”

She’s even inspired some of her students to make their own songs, which demonstrates they know the subject. “You have to think about the vocabulary and all the terms and concepts and make it fit so you’re really learning what you’re singing about,” Rivera said.

Retirement is a long way off, and she tells her students she’ll be at ECS until they graduate from college. “If I keep doing that every year, I will never retire. … I don’t see an end to teaching for me.”

Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email communications@calstrs.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.

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