Richard Tejada’s seventh- and eighth-grade students at Curtis Middle School in San Bernardino refer to their math instructor simply as “Mr. T,” an abbreviated version of his last name. But the “T” could just as easily refer to “tenacious,” the word many of his family and friends use to describe him.
“I really like working hard to reach whatever kind of goals I set for myself,” said Tejada, who earned a BA in mathematics at Cal State San Bernardino in 2016 followed by a single-subject credential in mathematics in 2017. “I take my responsibilities super seriously. Whether it’s work or family or friends, if I say something, I mean it. And that’s what I’ve built my reputation on.”
Both Tejada’s tenacity and work ethic were instrumental in getting him where he is today, a demonstration teacher who mentors other teachers throughout the San Bernardino City Unified School District.
Tejada’s parents fled to the U.S. from El Salvador during the war in the mid-1980s and providing a good education for Tejada and his three younger sisters was extremely important to them, he said. His mother left school after third grade to help her family, and his father, who attended night school as a child, completed his GED after he arrived in the U.S.
“They’ve sacrificed a lot. That’s a big motivator for me, knowing that they did so much to put us in a position to do great things. And I want to do what I can to meet those expectations,” he said.
Tejada grew up in San Bernardino’s DMV neighborhood, “not the most ideal neighborhood, high crime, high poverty, lots of apartments.
“I actually grew up five minutes from where I teach right now,” Tejada said, “That’s been the greatest part, being able to teach kids that I really identify with. I see a lot of myself in them, and that’s helped me a lot as a teacher and educator, just making those connections with them. I let them know, ‘You can do it. You’re capable of it. If one person can do it, anybody else can do it.’ And I think sometimes that’s all they need to hear. It’s not an impossible task.”
Spanish was spoken in Tejada’s home, and in elementary school he was placed in bilingual classrooms until third grade, so learning English was a challenge.
“Early on I enjoyed school but when I got to middle school age, I wasn’t the biggest fan. I had a couple of teachers that really stood out as genuinely caring about us. Other than that, I just kind of felt like I was always getting in trouble,” he admitted.
Tejada attended San Bernardino High School for one year, and opportunity knocked when he was recruited to Middle College High School, which gave students the chance to take high school classes and also pursue college-level classes at San Bernardino Valley College.
“I saw it as a chance to stay out of trouble and do something different from what I saw happening with my friends,” he recalled. “Some of my friends did great for themselves. But I’ve lost a few friends, and a few have been arrested. Going to that Middle College High School changed the whole trajectory in my life. Had I not done that, college would not have been a possibility.”
After graduating, Tejada attended the University of California, Riverside and majored in mechanical engineering. But during his freshman year, “I felt lost,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I had found where I belonged, and I didn’t really understand the system there. One of my classes was in a hall the size of a movie theater. It felt huge.”
He left after his first year and returned to San Bernardino Valley College. “I was just trying to make sense of what I was going to do. While I was there, I had a chance to tutor — not necessarily at-risk youth, but students who were not the most motivated to be there. That’s what sparked my interest in teaching.
“I really enjoyed working with them. The students would come in and at first, they were not into it. But then this shift happens once they start getting it and you can see them thinking, ‘Hey, I can actually do this.’ They start smiling and then, ‘Hey, Mr. T, I’m doing it.’ It’s really a rewarding feeling. I knew then I wanted to be a math teacher. And, once I set that goal for myself, there’s nothing that could have talked me out of it.”
With a renewed focus and determined to earn a teaching degree, Tejada enrolled at CSUSB, where he found the community he’d been seeking.
“I was placed in a group within the math department and it was awesome. I still have a group of friends I made there that I call my ‘lifers,’ and they’re all math teachers,” he said. “We struggled together. We studied together all the time. We became really good friends. And, within the math department, they had an amazing tutoring program, with higher-level students doing the tutoring. They have a math club. I really felt like I belonged. I didn’t feel lost.”
Tejada’s first teaching job after graduating was a long-term substitute teacher experience. “I remember it as clear as day. This little seventh-grade girl asked me, ‘Is this your first time teaching or something?’ That hit me hard,” he said, laughing. “I’m a very confident person, but that really took it out of me, it really humbled me.
“It made me realize that (teaching) is going to be harder than I thought, but I guess that’s where that tenacity comes in. I said to myself, ‘Okay, I need to get better.’ Then I was fortunate enough to land at Curtis Middle School and they have the highest number of demonstration teachers of any school site in the district,” he said.
The goal of the Demonstration Teacher program is to enhance teacher quality and effectiveness in the San Bernardino City Unified School District and build a pipeline of high-quality future educators by using exemplar teachers as resources and models, according to the school district’s website. The program creates a pathway for teacher leadership in the district; supports district teachers through observation, coaching and mentorship; and provides exemplary models of teaching practice for current and future teachers to observe. There are 55 demonstration teachers district wide.
Now in his seventh year of teaching at Curtis, Tejada took full advantage of the guidance and mentorship of the demonstration teachers at the school.
“There were so many amazing teachers there my ‘prep’ year,” he said. “I would observe them and I’d ask questions and I tried things out in my classroom. I was looking to other people that had it down and figuring out how to make it my own. And by the time my actual first year of teaching came around, I had my classroom management pretty well handled.”
Tejada, who was named chair of the school’s math department last year, also realized his goal of becoming a demonstration teacher himself this year.
“Being a part of the demonstration program has introduced me to this whole other side of education. I really love helping new teachers — it’s just a passion of mine. It’s a way to have a bigger impact in my community by helping new teachers become better teachers,” he said.
Tejada helps with the induction program as a mentor for new teachers, which is similar to a two-year onboarding program. He has also been working with student teachers since he became eligible to do so in 2020. While many teachers have a solid understanding of the subject matter they teach, the demonstration program “helps with the building of the classroom culture aspect, which is difficult for people, whether it’s the classroom management or just building relationships with the students,” he said.
As World Teachers’ Day is commemorated on Oct. 5, Tejada expressed his thanks to “everybody that helped me on my path here. I could have very easily ended up in a very different situation. I’m always very appreciative of the people that took the time to help me be the teacher I am today,” he said.
His advice for anyone interested in pursuing a teaching career is “that you understand there’s going to be a lot of growth involved and not to give up on it and continue working at the craft.
“It’s not a career that you learn by just deciding you’re going to be a math teacher, or history teacher, or English teacher or whatever you decide to teach. It is not just about knowing the material and being passionate about it. It’s about being passionate about the art of teaching. And I do think it’s an art.”
View a recent video Tejada created in his role as a demonstration teacher to introduce other teachers to classroom management during the first days of a new school year.