“I had always dreamed of teaching children with a background like mine.”

Baltazar Villalba
Long Beach, CA
EnCorps STEM Teachers Program

From engineer to teacher — and loving it

My family came to this country from Mexico when I was five, so I was an English-language learner in school and had to work very hard. After graduating from high school, it took me eight years to graduate from California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly, Pomona) while working full-time at night.

I started out as an aerospace engineer and then transferred into marketing, working at Hewlett Packard and IBM for most of my career. Then I became a financial advisor, but ultimately didn’t find it satisfying enough.

I had always dreamed of teaching children with a background like mine, and I was 59 years old, so I knew it was now or never. I found out about the EnCorps STEM Teachers Program, which would allow me to explore the possibility of becoming a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) teacher in a high-needs middle or high school. I quickly applied and was accepted.

It’s a two-year program that includes both being in the classroom and working to complete your teaching credential. In the first year, you volunteer as a tutor or guest teacher for 2-5 hours per week in one of the partner schools. Your mentor teacher helps you prepare and gives you feedback, and offers continued support even after you complete the program and get your first job. I started off assisting my mentor teacher and, by the second half of the year, I’d taken over two of his five classes. It’s a gradual increase in responsibilities, and they set you up for success as best they can.

My first job was the toughest assignment you can get, in Watts. I spent my first year there teaching math in a middle school, and the following two years I taught at the Academy of Science and Engineering. When I saw a job opening at Soledad Enrichment Action (SEA) and I saw the kids, I knew it’s where I wanted to work. I’m in my third year there, and I love it.

It’s so much more satisfying than what I used to do for work. The best is when you get to see that moment when a student really gets something for the first time. Especially algebra, which can be super confusing. Sometimes I was so confused at their age that I couldn’t even ask a question, so I know that feeling.

These kids get yelled at all the time, so I try to never ever yell at them. As a new teacher it can be very frustrating, but the second you yell they won’t listen to you anymore. You have to be very calm. They want respect. Some of them have such difficult lives. I want them to know right off the bat that I’m on their side.

I feel comfortable with them. Some of them may look intimidating, but they’re just kids. They just want someone to listen to them and believe in them. I get to be a male figure in their lives who says, “You could be an engineer.”

I feel relevant again, like what I do is really important. I don’t plan on ever retiring.

Photo by Jessica Pons

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