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Peace at the Heart of El Centro Teacher’s Message

Haydee Rodriguez is One of Six National Peace Teachers and Planned to Spread that Gospel During Education Equity Panel

Central Union High teacher Ricardo Tostado took a picture and a pledge to do little things for peace as part of the International Day of Peace Challenge on Sept. 21. | PHOTO COURTESY OF HAYDEE RODRIGUEZ

EL CENTRO — Haydee Rodriguez tells her students that “peace begins at home.” It’s an idea she lives by and that she took on the road this week when the California Board of Education trustee preached that notion during an online conference on education equity.

The Latino community has been hit hard this year by the COVID-19 pandemic with losses of life, jobs, and morale, Rodriguez said during an interview just days before she was to be a panelist on Latinos for Education’s “State of Latino Education” on Wednesday, Oct. 6.

Community building is a part of the Latino life, she said, and if there is no equity in education or in life, there will be no peace. There needs to be a cultural competence to make students feel welcome as well as have access to what they need.

It’s an interlocking cycle that the Central Union High School AVID, journalism, and world history teacher lives and breathes daily as one of only six teachers in the country to be chosen as a national peace teacher.

“Students need to be given a chance to develop, to shine,” Rodriguez said. “Those types of opportunities engage students, and it makes them want to be a part (of something) instead of drop out, because they feel validated.”

Chosen to be a peace teacher in July — the only individual chosen in California —two weeks ago Rodriguez helped her students exercise their peace muscles during the U.S. Institute of Peace’s International Day of Peace on Sept. 21.

It might seem like something small, but the Peace Day Challenge her students participated in via Instagram resonated and was empowering for them.

“At first the students were like, ‘What? Me, with peace?’” Rodriguez said. “It was awesome, it was really fantastic.”

Central Union High school teacher Haydee Rodriguez (right), who is one of six national peace teacher, and Central Associated Student Body Director Sara McFadden pose in the Volkswagen bus created by Rodriguez’s students as part of the International Day of Peace Challenge on Sept. 21. | PHOTO COURTESY OF HAYDEE RODRIGUEZ

The online challenge to the world to share acts and pictures promoting peace on social media saw her students create a Volkswagen bus frame and a regular picture frame and encourage people on the Central campus to take a pledge to bring peace, no matter how small, then take a photo and hashtag it #PeaceDayChallenge.

It wasn’t just selfies, but a kind of internal commitment to look toward love over violence, help over hurting, or, she said, it could be as simple as making your bed in the morning, helping with the groceries, or even just choosing to smile.

Rodriguez teaches her students ways to solve problems without aggressive conflict or violence. Her students are taught to use peace keeping tools and apply them to ideas such as future water or environmental battles.

In a world where the nature of finding solutions can set up conflict, why choose the path of most resistance? Why not choose peace?

Not only did her students pour themselves into the challenge, but they were also able to get the El Centro community as a whole involved. The Imperial County Office of Education created a Peace Day video for Instagram and Facebook addressing the need to help the students in the community.

Her students were also sent a certificate from the U.S. Institute of Peace for meeting and excelling in the challenge. Rodriguez is looking forward to seeing this even grow at Central in the years to come.

“It was very exciting to see them appreciate what it takes to create peace and to want peace,” Rodriguez said. “They want to live in a peaceful world, I think we all do. We all want peace, to grow as human beings, and to work towards our potential without feeling we need to be stuck with conflict, whether it be military or societal conflict.”

As she looked toward her midweek conference and applying these principles of peace to access and equity for Latino students, Rodriguez believes Central has been able to keep opportunities open to its students. Still, the school and district need to continue addressing the challenges its students face. In fact, she remembers a time not too long ago when it was perfectly acceptable for Latino children to drop out of school with little inquiries on causes.

Rodriguez said when there is peace, a lack of conflict in the classroom, and equal opportunities, there is a better environment for students to thrive and get involved. Activities such as her classroom’s Day of Peace challenge are what can get students to feel like they are a part of the community and not excluded.

Rodriguez said she was honored to have been asked to speak for her work in the classroom and on behalf of the Hispanic community. To that end, to have been chosen to be a peace teacher is one of the greatest rewards in her life, and something Rodriguez said is already a huge goal crossed off her bucket list.

“This is a dream fulfilled,” Rodriguez said. “If I can leave however small a legacy of peace with my students, then I’ve done a lot.”