Raquel Bryant has returned to her alma mater, Stratford Middle School in San Jose. Walking across the campus on the first day of school and stepping foot inside a once familiar classroom, she reminisces about being a middle school student here and smiles as she recalls all of the fun times that she and her friends shared. Today is different, though. Raquel is not just a visitor sharing memories of attending Stratford Middle School. Today, Raquel has stepped into HER classroom as a new Language Arts Teacher. The excitement of welcoming Raquel back to Stratford is shared by not only the school leader and her fellow teachers, several of whom taught Raquel, but it is also shared by her students – they are thrilled to be taught by someone who knows what it’s like to be a Stratford Middle School student … someone a lot like them – yet, they still need to call her, Ms. Bryant.

We spoke to Raquel to find out what it has been like for her to come full circle at Stratford, from student to alumni, and now as a Middle School teacher.

What inspired you to become a teacher?
Something in my heart told me I wanted to be a teacher when I was three years old. I hadn’t gone to school yet, but I knew the profession was going to be a big part of my life. Unlike many other kids at a young age, my dream job of being a teacher never changed. What really set it in stone was my second-grade teacher at Los Gatos. His name was Mr. Bill Jenkinson. I was really traumatized from my early education experiences and I felt that I was never allowed to be truly myself nor was I being taught in a way that had me engaged. Mr. J changed my life. He had a sense of humor that mirrored mine and he had a huge impact on my character and personality. I wanted to learn from him. He showed tremendous patience for the unique way that I learned and encouraged my self-exploration. He gave me a chance, and it honestly solidified my drive to one day inspire a student of mine with the same level of dedication that he had shown me.

Did you have any Stratford teachers or leaders who made a lasting impression on you? Who and why?
Other than Mr. Jenkinson, another inspirational Stratford Teacher would be Mrs. Monisha Gupta. She’s amazing and has continued to be a huge part of my life after middle school. I will willingly admit that I strongly disliked math and it has always been my weakest subject. At the time, Mrs. Gupta was teaching seventh-grade math and while other students who didn’t know her might have been frightened of her, she was one of my favorite teachers. She was very disciplined and organized, which was highly motivating for me. She never let me slack off and she gave me a fresh perspective about math. After graduating from Stratford, she remained heavily involved in my life, essentially adopting me as a family member and being a mentor all through college and now in my career as I follow in her footsteps, with the same high level of classroom expectations with my own students.

What are the most important lessons that you learned at Stratford?
 Wow. I learned time management! Stratford students always have a million things going on – in school, after school, weekends, etc. This was about a lesson of balance. It’s not just about the homework and the studying, we still had to participate in after-school sports, spend time with our families, free-read, go on playdates, play an instrument, etc. Looking back, and even witnessing it with my current students, it’s amazing how they already know how to juggle so much. Yes, it was crazy and it was so difficult at the time, but once I got to high school and even in college, all the skills and discipline that I needed to succeed were there. While this is not a lesson learned in the classroom, this is a lesson I truly would give credit to Stratford. Having an overload of units every semester in college and even tackling teaching multiple classes now, I confidently know that I can check everything off my to-do list and still have time to free-read, cook dinner and/or spend time with my loved ones. It’s been a lifestyle that I am so used to and I think it’s what has kept me so driven ever since elementary school.

Raquel and her former teachers!

Front, L to R: Mira Datta-Nawbatt, Maggie Schwartz, Raquel Bryant, Monisha Gupta – Back, L to R: Nick Maramba, Dave Clarke, Loren Gustafson, Ben Guansing

How does it feel to come back to Stratford to be part of the faculty?
Being a faculty member is wild!  Even though I started working at Stratford last year, I was at a campus that was new to me and the whole year was wonky due to COVID. I never felt that I was really back in my old school atmosphere. This year now brings on so many new emotions. I am working at my old campus, with some of my former teachers as my coworkers! I think one of the biggest adjustments is knowing that I’m allowed to call them by their first name instead of addressing them by their last.  And vice versa!  I get called by my first name a lot just from old habits, but I still think that being called by my last name as a teacher is weird.

The fact that I get to teach the curriculum that I had once learned is probably the highlight. I loved seventh-grade literature while I was a student, so it’s quite an honor to be teaching it and sharing all my thoughts that I remember having but was too shy to share with the class. I look at my students and feel a high level of relatability with them as they sit there working through similar concepts. Furthermore, I think the most special experience of being back on my campus is that every week a new memory comes back to me. I find myself walking around campus and peering into other classes or hearing my teachers teaching and it takes me back! It warms my heart to sit in the present day and visualize a younger version of myself walking these halls, interacting with my friends, and trying my best to academically succeed.   

What did it feel like on your first day in the classroom?
 I’ll be honest; the first day was a whirlwind! I don’t remember much. As an adult, 50 minute class periods go by very quickly. I never used to have 90-minute block schedules here, so I find it funny that my teachers managed 50 minute class periods every day! The first day of school was all 50 minute periods and I wanted to do so much, but never found the time! Thank goodness for my partner, Mrs. Joanie Campbell, and Mrs. Schwartz because I felt they really helped me through that day.

What insight do you hope to impart upon your students?
 I hope to provide my students with an appreciation for literature. Having grown up with Stratford’s academic culture, the students here are often very STEM-focused, but Stratford still aims to offer a well-rounded curriculum. I know that many students almost overlook or dread literature. I want to change their opinions. I want to make literature fun and worth it for them! Reading and literacy are in everything we do, and while mathematics and sciences are important, reading and writing should be just as appreciated. My lesson plans often are created with an effort to engage my students, validate their opinions, make mistakes, and of course, add some humor and entertainment!

What were your students’ reactions upon learning that you were once a Stratford student?
I willingly embarrassed myself with my school portrait photo from my seventh grade yearbook and shared it with my students on the first day of school. Their first reactions were that I didn’t look like the girl in the photo and they then had so many questions. I still get questions periodically even after a month of being in school. It’s whatever comes into their head, but often they ask me if the school is the same, how some of their current teachers were when I took the same class, some memories I have, what kind of student I was, etc. I’m pretty honest with them and I think they find it strange or they look at me like I’m really old. Haha. 

What is your favorite subject to teach?
My love is literature! I love reading, and read my way through my collegiate studies to ultimately teach English Literature at a secondary level. I found that my favorite and most memorable classes were those that were discussion-based and where students had the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions on pieces of text and bounce ideas off of each other to gain the most out of the learning experience.  That’s my goal as a teacher. If that’s how my classroom looks, I never feel like I’m working. I will always find an excuse to read, so why not incorporate that into my career. To me, reading is a passion!   

What is one of your favorite Stratford memories when you were a student?
I have so many fond memories here, it’s hard to pick one! I really grew in middle school and I was very social.  After struggling to feel included growing up, I finally found a great set of friends in middle school. Some of these friends ended up being a huge part of my life. I clearly remember meeting someone a couple of weeks into sixth grade who ended up being my best friend all throughout middle school, high school, college, and the present day. We were inseparable then and still are. I have so many memories together, from joking around during lunch here on campus to spending any time together adventuring during our class field trips. Since the majority of my favorite memories were shared together, simply meeting this person has got to be near the top of my list of favorites at Stratford Middle School.

Do you have any additional thoughts about what it is like to come full circle from student to teacher?
Completing a full circle and coming back to Stratford ten years later is something I’m trying to process. I keep talking to my parents, my cousin, and my friends, who all have experienced Stratford in one way or another, about how surreal it is to be seeing everything behind the scenes. There’s still a part of me that feels like I shouldn’t be in the know of the teacher’s perspective because I’m “not old enough” or something of the sort. I have to remind myself that I’ve earned this position and I’m honored that Stratford has chosen me to be a part of their team. There’s a familial aspect to being back and I feel very comforted that I get to start a new chapter of my life in a treasured book that I know so well from before.