Shajena Erazo Cartagena
High School English/College Prep Teacher
Born in New York, but raised in Miami, Shajena Erazo Cartagena is the child of immigrant parents from Honduras and Puerto Rico. She has had many influential teachers in her life that helped change the game for her, which inspired her to go into the classroom. A graduate of the University of Miami (UM) in 2009, Mrs. Cartagena received her Bachelor’s degree in English, with minors in Psychology and Religious Studies. After graduating from UM, she decided to do a year of service through an AmeriCorps program called City Year, where she served as a tutor, mentor, and role model to 28 first graders in Southeast, DC. It was that experience that solidified her desire to go into the classroom, where she is now beginning her seventh year as an English/College Prep teacher at Ballou High School, just nine blocks away from where she served her AmeriCorps year. Mrs. Cartagena has a Masters in the Art of Teaching from American University, and she is the 2015 American Express DC Teacher of the Year. She was also a 2013 Finalist for DC Teacher of the Year and a Finalist for the White House “Champions of Change” Award, presented by the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
Why do you teach?
I teach because I believe that education has the power to change the life outcomes of my students. I am a first-generation American, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico and Honduras. And it was because I had teachers that cared greatly for me, that the trajectory of my life was forever changed. Education is the greatest gift I could ever give someone, and I love that I get to do that every day with my students.
For me teaching is more than a job. It’s ministry. It is about more than just teaching standards and meeting benchmarks. For me, teaching is also about developing the character of my students. It’s about showing them how to love, how to forgive, how to handle their anger. This is especially important when teaching in a low-income, high needs school, where students are constantly dealing with trauma. It is my hope that by being my students’ teacher, that they will not only get into college and careers, but that they will have the character that sustains them through challenging times.
What do you love about teaching?
My favorite part of my job is building relationships with my students. Each kiddo is so unique and has so much to offer the world. I love that I get to see them grow from insecure-and-timid freshmen to college-bound seniors in four short years. Of course, I am proud when my students improve their reading Lexile or raise their SAT scores. As an AVID (college prep) teacher and AVID Coordinator, I have the chance to explicitly teach my students the soft skills they need to be successful in college. So, I especially love it when their college acceptance letters start arriving to their homes. But truthfully, the part I enjoy most is getting to know my students and having the opportunity to shape the character and minds of America’s future, all while laughing and “getting to do life together.”
When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?
I’ve been so blessed to have so many incredible teachers that inspired me along my education journey. Because my mom passed away when I was three, and my dad became a single parent at 26 years old, responsible for my younger sister and me, education was a way that I was nurtured during that tumultuous time. If it were not for educators such as Ms. Mobilia and Mr. Falcon in my elementary school years, I wouldn’t have known what it meant to be challenged and pushed in elementary school, which is foundational for a positive experience with academia. Mrs. Young helped me navigate the awkward middle school years with her wisdom and social-emotional understanding of youth. And it was Mr. Muchnick who taught me about the about the world through courses in Global Studies and World History. He is the reason why I love learning about the world and truly value being a global citizen. My English champions and the ones who inspired me to get my Bachelors in English—an irony because Spanish was my first language—were Ms. Termine and Ms. Louis, whose love of literature allowed me to get lost and found in books. And it was Ms. Bailey who taught me how to refine my craft of public speaking in her Speech class, as well as my leadership because she served as my advisor during my tenure as Student Government President of my high school.
If it were not for these teachers, who willingly chose to teach in some of the toughest schools in Miami-Dade County, I would not be the person I am today, nor would I be the tender-but-tough teacher that I am now with my students in Southeast, Washington D.C.
Perhaps one day one of my students will say the same thing about me. And that, in itself, is the greatest honor one can receive—to learn that someone else’s life is different…better…forever changed because of…you.