Like Teacher, Like Student: Veteran Teacher, Former Student now Teacher of the Year Finalists

Teacher Mercedes Brissette couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago that the shy, but eager English language learner she welcomed into her Irvin High School classroom would one day become her peer.

What is really extraordinary, however, is that a decade after Zulema Estrada-Piña left Brissette’s classroom — and years after Estrada-Piña became a teacher at Lee Elementary on her own right — their paths would once again cross.

This time it would be as finalists for the 2018 El Paso Independent School District Teacher of the Year title.

“When I found out Zulema was a finalist, I was extremely happy. For me, that was like I’ve already won. This is my reward,” Brissette said. “I’m extremely proud.”

Estrada-Piña shared similar emotions. After all, she credits Brissette for sparking an interest in a career as a teacher.

“I remember how she made me feel in the classroom,” said the dual-language second-grade teacher. “For me to be honored at the same time blows my mind.”

Brissette and Estrada-Piña will be honored during the Teacher of the Year Celebration on Friday at the Centennial Banquet and Conference Center on Fort Bliss. The two are vying for the title of EPISD Teacher of the Year and the opportunity to represent the District in the Region 19 Teacher of the Year contest.

Both teachers said they’re thankful they’re not competing against each other, since they’re being considered in separate categories.

The two teachers reunited recently at Irvin to reminisce and talk about the honor of being Teacher of the Year finalists on the same year.

Brissette, who continues to teach ESL, remembers the bright-eyed Estrada-Piña well. When they embraced at their reunion last week, the tears flowed — an obvious display of their mutual admiration.

“Zulema was one of those students who would take the lead and those are the students you always remember,” said Brissette, a 22-year veteran of the classroom. “She was always willing to help in the classroom, always observing what was going on. She really wanted to succeed.”

Estrada-Piña recalls Brissette’s classroom as a safe haven and a positive place to learn and not be judged for making errors when speaking and learning a new language.

“She supported us and that made such a big impact,” said Estrada-Piña, who came to El Paso from Juárez at 13. “I go back to my students and I see me in them. I need to be give them what Ms. Brissette gave me.”

The admiration goes both ways, however. This is apparent when Brissette’s eyes dance with pride as she talks about her former student and current peer.

“This is the vision we have for our students,” Brissette said. “We never know when we might be teaching someone who will be a teacher one day.”

During a quick visit to Irvin, Brissette congratulated the 2008 graduate with a bag of gifts to commemorate her success and the admiration of the Irvin community. Inside was an ‘I love Irvin’ t-shirt and pens with the school’s mascot – reminders of her days at Irvin and her new role teaching future rockets.

“You are our little Rocket that we launched already,” Brissette smiled. “All the teachers are very proud of you.”

Story by Reneé de Santos | Photos by Leonel Monroy  |  Video by Raymond Jackson and Angel Dominguez/EPISD