Gateway Through and Through: Sandra Cabrera-Galvan reflects on her time as both teacher and student

Sandra teaching

Sandra Cabrera-Galvan knew she wanted to be a teacher since she was nine years old, but she probably never imagined that her path to the front of the classroom would take her right back to where she started: at Gateway High School.

“I always knew I wanted to be involved with helping people and giving back to my community, and teaching is a really powerful way to do that,” she said. “That idea was only solidified when I got to Gateway and had really influential teachers who were interested in my and my success.”

As a new freshman, Sandra admits to being less than enthusiastic about her family’s choice to enroll her and her brother at GHS; the school seemed too small and she was worried about forging an identity distinct from her brother. 

“But that turned around really quickly,” she said. “All the teachers seemed so cool and they were very caring. They saw me, and I don’t think I had ever really felt that way at school before. My ninth grade humanities teacher in particular, Ms. Wieder, was probably one of the biggest adult influences in my life outside of my family – and now she’s my boss (as GHS Co-Principal)!”

She quickly found her niche as a writer and poet, starting a creative writing club with a friend and regularly participating in poetry slam. Sandra achieved notable academic and attended SF City College after graduating from GHS, with an intense focus on transferring to a four year school as soon as possible – often  taking more than a full course load and working at a pizza place to support herself through school.

“Community college was a lot like Gateway for me, where I hated it for the first few weeks, and there was definitely some stigma I had to unlearn about what kinds of students go to community college, but after a little while I loved it,” she said. “The class sizes, the freedom to explore my interests, it was a really good experience.”

At City College Sandra discovered criminology, which she ended up majoring in when she transferred to Holy Names University and took an internship at the District Attorney’s office working to support the victims and witnesses of crimes.

“I knew I wanted to support misunderstood or misrepresented communities, and I became very interested in working with incarcerated folks or those re-entering society,” she said. “I like to understand why people do what they do and how systems work, and what we can do to either dismantle those systems or take advantage of them, and it seemed like a path that would allow me to make a really positive impact.”

After receiving her BA, Sandra began taking the steps toward a career as a victims’ advocate, and started babysitting to help pay bills in the meantime, which led her to reconnect with some of her former Gateway teachers who were parents. It put her in the right place at the right time when an opportunity materialized: would she be interested in becoming a paraeducator for Gateway?

“It was great, and I was able to spend hours talking to faculty about the path to becoming an educator, and the teachers I worked with were so generous about letting me lead portions of the class or small groups to get that real experience – and now I can really appreciate how hard it can be to let someone take over your class like that!” she said. “I gained a reputation for always asking for more: more feedback, more opportunities, more responsibility. Everyone at Gateway has always been down to support my practice.”

Her persistence paid off and in 2016 Sandra was brought on as a intern Spanish and Spanish literature teacher, leading in the same classrooms where she had once been an inquisitive teenager herself. 

“It probably took me all seven years and having a kid of my own to finally feel like ‘yes, I am finally an adult here,’” she said, laughing. “It probably took a little extra work to build up that confidence. But people like Ms. Wieder? Mr. Woolgar? They’ll always be ‘my teacher,’ even if we work together now.”

As a teacher and now college counselor as well, Sandra says that her number one priority is making sure that students feel that they belong and are appreciated in her classroom, whether through how she structures her lessons or spends time after school cheering them on in sporting events or other endeavors.

“Gateway has always been a place where I have felt free to express myself, first as a student and then as an educator, and when I see how fearless and vocal our students are, it’s something I’m proud to be a part of,” she said. “I feel like I’m doing a good job when our students are unafraid to share what’s on their minds and in their hearts.”

And does she encourage her students to one day follow in her footsteps and consider returning to Gateway to teach?

“I absolutely tell them to go for it. I recently told a student ‘imagine us becoming coworkers the way me and Mr. Rangel are, he was my teacher too!’” Sandra said. “She laughed, but I could tell she started thinking about it. So I always tell any interested student, ‘you don’t have to decide anything right now but it would be great to have you for a coworker.’”