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Manny and his students

Want to make a difference? ¡Tú Puedes!

According to this Connecticut educator, if you want a sense of purpose in life, teach!

Author: Manuel Zaldivar Barahona

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I was raised in Honduras by my aunt and my sister because my parents were not around when I was a child. I met my father when I was 9 and my mother when I was 10. Yet, instead of growing up to distrust important relationships, I was raised to value empathy and patience as an avenue to understanding. It was an important lesson that taught me how to build relationships—a lesson that has served me well in my career as an educator.

I arrived in this country at age 18 with many dreams and aspirations. Here, I put into practice what my aunt said to me before I left Honduras, “You can do and be anything you want. Tu Puedes!” Those words have driven my work and guided my journey throughout my life.

Manny with a student

Realizing my own potential

I arrived in New York with a family to help support, so I took a job as an elevator operator. The work gave me enough to get by, but did not give me a sense of purpose. I decided to study English and, after a year, was accepted into Fordham University where I studied computer science and management applications. 

Something clicked for me when I took a class on integrating technology and education. I took a job through Americorps as a teacher’s aide in the Bronx where the enthusiasm of my peers helped to shape my future life as an educator.

Relating to students through representation

At my school in the Bronx, a coworker asked me how Latinx students could learn if they couldn’t identify themselves with the teacher in front of them.

I quickly realized that my experiences could be important to young Latinx learners in my classroom. I worried that young Latinx students would have trouble learning if they didn’t have  role models.

To explore all the ways I could make an impact, I decided to get a Masters in Education from Lehman College in the Bronx, NY, where I found that my concerns over cultural representation were supported by research. My graduate studies helped me discover that students do better when they are able to identify with who is teaching them. If we are going to be able to connect with our students, we must first learn about their individual identities. 

Manny and his students

Creating a culture of understanding

Once I was ready to teach and run my own classroom, I was happy to find a school that fostered a culture of understanding and acceptance. The administration, parents and teachers were all supportive of one another, cultivating an environment of stability and community.

The school’s priorities were developing an understanding of everyone’s backgrounds by celebrating, valuing and using cultural factors to stimulate educational advantages. My sense of purpose shifted to learning how to incorporate cultural differences in my lessons.

While teaching, I attended Southern Connecticut University to complete my cross endorsement in bilingual education. Teaching students in my native language has now been a highlight of my career.

I encouraged my students to connect with one another by using cultural celebrations and traditions to teach both languages. I witnessed native English speaking students having conversations in Spanish. My sense of purpose evolved again to focus on how language learning could encourage two, three or more cultures to find commonalities with one another.

Expanding my purpose

After working in bilingual education, my focus shifted to leadership. I wanted to be able to advocate for my students, teachers and parents. I collaborated on projects for the school and led different committees. I wanted to have a say in how the curriculum encouraged awareness of Hispanic culture.

Over time, I developed the leadership skills that were integral to me being able to receive my Educational Leadership and Administration certification from Sacred Heart University. 

In 2016, I was surprised when I was named Connecticut Milken Educator 2016. As I read the articles the Milken Foundation had written about me, I was able to take stock of all the work I did to help my students achieve their own potential.

Manny winning an award from the Milken Foundation

The Milken Award is a program endowed by the Milken Family Foundation awarding early-to-mid career teachers with a $25,000 award to encourage notable educators to continue their good work. 

The biggest honor was how the award impacted my 34 students at the time. Most of my students raised their hands when I asked them if they wanted to become teachers. 

Manny in his classroom with students

Looking back and going forward

I used to dream about quitting my job as an elevator operator. Now I a principal and my focus remains on teaching: teaching others about culture, emotional learning, improving instructional practices, leadership skills, and developing an understanding of diverse cultures.

Therefore, if you want a sense of purpose in life, TEACH!


Manuel Zaldivar Barahona was the 2016 Connecticut Milken Educator. Watch him receive his award! You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


Are you ready to answer the call?

TEACH Connecticut is calling all future educators! Join Manuel and other teachers who are leading impact in their classrooms and districts.