Javier Nicasio: Advancing Social Justice through the CDA®

September 29, 2022

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” Javier says, “and defied anyone who said I’d made a bad choice. When people would ask why I didn’t do something else, I would insist I was born to be a teacher. That’s because I’ve always thought education was the best way to change people’s lives,” he explains. And this sense of commitment made him persist in the ECE field despite all the negative comments he heard about the profession. “People warned me that the pay was poor. They questioned why a male Latino would want to teach young children,” he recalls. “And I was one of the only boys enrolled in the Child Development Associate® (CDA) program at my high school, Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, NJ. But that never really bothered me because I wanted to pursue what made me happy.”

And Javier also had a strong role model in his mom, his first and foremost source of inspiration. “She was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, who came here as a teen,” he says. “She held two or three jobs at the same time, and one of them was as a child care provider for family and neighbors. She also raised three children of her own who now all hold advanced degrees. And watching her showed me the value of hard work, compassion and concern for others, especially children.”

Javier remembered the lessons he picked up from his mom as he earned a college degree and became a teacher for young children. He went on to gain a master’s in teaching and is now earning a post master’s principal’s certification, a program that made him think back to another great influence in his life. “The essay I wrote to get into the program was about my seventh- and eighth-grade teacher, Miss Polo. She grew up in the same neighborhood as I did in Paterson, NJ. She attended the same middle school as I did. And we also shared a common background since she was a Latina who always stressed the importance of social justice. That meant giving back to your community, she explained, by being an advocate for others.”

And the children he would go on to serve as a third-grade teacher in Newark truly needed someone to stand up for them. “The school where I worked was in a rough part of town,” Javier says, “and I had a lot of students who’d been through serious trauma. I had students who were homeless. I had students whose fathers were in prison, and many of them were reading well below their age group. My training did not prepare me for this, but I was committed to building strong bonds with these kids and showing them that I was there for them. So, I tried to create an environment where they felt safe and had the chance to learn.”

But it was a challenge, Javier admits, because the school was underfunded. “I constantly had to pay out of pocket for many of my supplies, and the students had behavior issues, especially a small boy named Adam who’d been through extreme trauma. He’d lost his father when he was very young, and his mother had lost a leg after being hit by a car. He had been bouncing around between different homes and sometimes didn’t sleep at night. So, I made it a point to be flexible with him. I let him sleep in my classroom and took extra steps to get him engaged in learning. For instance, he loved football, so I gave him books to read about football, talked to him about the game and even showed up at his football games to make him feel I was present in his life.”

It’s all about building bonds and learning about children’s lives, Javier explains. “For example, I had a student named Alicia who disappeared for a long time from my class. I didn’t know what happened to her until I finally received a text from her mom. It turned out they were in a shelter, and some people would write a family like this off as hopeless. But I didn’t. I know homeless parents seem different, but they do love their children and care about their education.”

Javier loved and cared about the children, too, and one of the ways he supported them was through reading. “Alicia, for instance, loved to read,” he says, “and I wanted to get all my students to feel that way. So, one of the things I did to encourage them was I brought in a tent and set it up in the center of the room. Then I told them we’re going to do like a D.E.A.R. That means drop everything and read,” Javier explains. “And the children did. They were fighting to get inside that tent with their books.” And it seemed like fun, but it achieved a serious purpose. “One of my goals is to get children to read, “Javier says.

And he’s continued to pursue it in the past year, ever since he became an early childhood instructor at Passaic County Technical Institute, the school where he earned his CDA® and met his favorite teacher. “She taught me to give back to the community, as I’ve pointed out,” Javier says. “And now I’ve had my CDA students serve the community, too, by creating a YouTube channel, PCTVS Storytelling. On it, they support literacy and language skills by reading aloud to children and families.”

The read aloud project was part of a competition set up by SkillsUSA, a group that partners with career and technical education programs nationwide. The goal of the contest is to get students to think about ways to give back by pointing out an important issue in their field and coming up with a service project to address it. “The issue my CDA students identified was giving young children more access to diverse books by reading aloud,” Javier says.

And the project played an important role for the children with whom Javier’s students worked while doing their field work for the CDA. “Many of the children came from low-income homes where they didn’t have a selection of books or had parents who couldn’t read English,” Javier says. “So, we wanted to fill in the gaps by giving the children a chance to see and hear their student teachers reading aloud to them at night.”

The project didn’t just give the children better language skills. It also taught Javier’s high school students a vital lesson: the value of advocating for the community where they live. And one of the ways to do that is by earning a CDA. “Education,” Javier says, “is a powerful tool that creates a strong foundation for success, so promoting the CDA is a way to ensure there’s a supply of high-quality teachers, something that’s not the case now. And the current teacher shortage is one of the subjects that come up in our weekly talks about current events. We might also explore an empowering TED talk about education or some other important issue. And there’s a lot of lively discussion since the high school students love talking about what’s going on in the world.”

They also love the different ways Javier makes sure his classes are engaging and entertaining. “My classes are very hands-on,” Javier says, “and I try to come up with activities that reflect the experiences of teens. So, for example, I had them create videos on TikTok when we were discussing the proper way for children to wash their hands. I also had them do projects where they pretended that they were founding and running their own preschool,” Javier says. And he encourages them to advance by starting their own business or going on with their education.

“I talk a lot with my students about what they need to do to go to college,” Javier explains, “because I had no one to have that talk with me when I was in high school. Though my parents valued education, neither of them went to college. So, I had to figure out a lot of things on my own, including how to get financial aid and decide whether college was even the right choice for me.”

But he managed to figure out how the higher ed system works and fill out all the applications. Now he’s guiding rising teachers like a girl named Susana who sent him a wonderful letter some months ago. “We’re halfway through the year,” she wrote, “and I want to say that you have been one of my favorite teachers. I love how you helped us with our college applications and how you made your classes so interactive. Your bright personality makes your class such a positive place.”

And Javier felt especially upbeat this spring when he watched Susana and some of his other seniors graduate from high school with their CDAs. “The school bought them gifts, balloons and graduation caps, and everyone clapped as they came on stage,” Javier recalls. “It was moving to watch them and realize they now had the skills to make an impact on children and families,” Javier says. And he had a personal sense of satisfaction as he watched the seniors strut off stage with their credentials. Javier had ramped up his mission to promote social justice—one he’d embraced since his school days with Miss Polo. “I’ve broadened my impact by helping the students earn their CDA,” he explains. “I’ve empowered these rising teachers to make a difference in their communities, too.”


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