Jessica Borah became an educator to help all students ‘feel known and seen’
Every so often, Jessica Borah will be asked a question that many people typically answer with ease.
“Who is one teacher that had a positive impact on you?”
For some, it was a grade-school teacher who encouraged wonder and curiosity about themselves and the world. Others highlight a high school teacher who helped ignite a passion that led to choosing a major to study in college—and possibly a career.
Borah gets a little jealous whenever she hears people talk about a teacher from their past who shaped who they are today. But her response illustrates one of the primary reasons she is now a School and District Success Manager at Summit Learning.
“Whenever people ask that question, my answer is always, ‘I have none,’” Borah said. “I would guess that many of my teachers wouldn’t even remember my name or know who I was.”
It’s not that Borah was disinterested in school or an unmotivated student throughout her childhood in the San Diego-area of California. Borah consistently achieved good grades, never got in trouble, and deftly moved through each grade level on her way to college.
But nowhere on her K-12 journey did Borah feel connected to any particular teacher.
“I was a good student, I was a rule-follower, and I still never really felt known by any of my teachers ever in my entire educational career,” Borah said. “I did all my work and I didn’t cause any problems and I was quiet. So I just kind of blended in.
“And so when I became a teacher, one of the things that was really central to my practice was making sure that every student felt known.”
Borah didn’t even know she wanted to be a teacher until her senior year at the University of California San Diego. She chose to pursue a Psychology major because she enjoyed learning about the science behind human behavior in social settings.
“But then I finally realized, ‘Wait, I don’t actually want to be a psychologist,’” Borah said. “I was following the path of being a student, but just because it’s interesting to me doesn’t mean that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. Who’s to say that I couldn’t have figured that out earlier if I had a better plan in place for going into young adulthood?”
On a whim, Borah applied to a teaching program and instantly felt the start of a passion that had been missing in her life. After completing her bachelor’s degree in psychology, she achieved a Master’s degree in Education at UCSD and was on her way to becoming the type of teacher she wished she had as a student.
“I kind of fell into teaching and ended up loving it and really connecting with the idea that education has a potential to be something super powerful,” Borah said. “I really think it’s our jobs as teachers to help students develop their own identities as human beings, help them identify what their strengths and interests are, what they value at an earlier age, so that they are better equipped to leverage those into their life plans as young adults coming out of high school.”
Identity is an important word for Borah, who loved being raised in a Hispanic culture and said it provided her with much-needed perspective when she taught at a school where 86 percent of students were Hispanic. Borah, who was a math teacher and instructional coach at Rancho Minerva Middle School in Vista, Calif., quickly realized that the best way to connect with a diverse group of students was through mentoring and open communication with families.
“We had a lot of first-generation students and their families had a really high value on education, but they didn’t always have the resources or availability to help their students be successful,” Borah said. “So we really used mentoring as a tool to empower those students on an individual level, but also make that purposeful connection with families to let them know that, ‘Your child has somebody at school who is in their corner, who knows them personally, and who is helping develop their skills.’ That was really well received by our community.”
But for the first decade of Borah’s teaching career, she often felt frustrated that she didn’t have the time or resources to individually connect with her students. That changed in 2016, when Borah was among those on her team who helped bring Summit Learning to Rancho Minerva and establish a mentoring program that provided all students consistent one-on-one time with an adult educator.
“Relationship-building was always really important in my classroom, but when you have 180 students, I never felt like I was able to have that consistency or time to build those relationships,” Borah said. “So the mentoring program with Summit Learning allowed me to have structured time with a smaller group of students and helped me to feel like I was being more equitable.”
Borah also found that partnering with Summit Learning allowed her more time throughout the day to focus on teaching math in more student-centered ways because of the curriculum and student progress information at her disposal. As she spoke to families and students of various backgrounds, Borah understood how pivotal it would be for her school’s curriculum to continue to reflect and celebrate Hispanic culture.
“There were so many students just flying under the radar, like how I was growing up, and so the extra time allowed us to have every student feel like they were known and seen,” Borah said.
Borah, who has two mixed-race daughters ages 11 and 7, loves watching her children discover their own passions while growing up in the North County area of San Diego. As she celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month this fall, Borah also embraces the various ways that Latinx culture is observed and appreciated year-round.
“It’s important that we as a society explicitly call out the diversity within Hispanic Heritage Month, as it looks different across our country, across our world,” Borah said. “Not to just make Hispanic culture this monolith of, ‘This is what it looks like all the time,’ but recognizing all of the differences within that culture as well.”
After 14 years teaching in an inclusive, student-centered way, Borah is now pursuing a new passion in education. Borah recently joined Gradient Learning, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Summit Learning program, to guide other teachers in their quest to maximize learning for their students.
“Everybody is spread too thin with not enough support to really invest the time and energy into what really matters, which is truly knowing their students on an academic and personal level,” Borah said. “Most educators have so much potential and passion that they’re not able to really put into play and I want to help them do that.
“I feel like the classroom is a place where students have such a cool opportunity to grow as humans. That was my job as a teacher and now I want to help bring that awareness to others so they can have a direct impact on their students.”
Someday, a former student of Borah’s might get asked to name a teacher who made a positive impact on their lives.
There’s a good chance the student will quickly think of one person: Mrs. Borah.