Local Leader Spotlight: Sylvia Tanguma, President of McAllen AFT

McAllen, Texas, is perched along the border in the Rio Grande Valley. In a school district of approximately 3,400 employees, McAllen AFT aims to represent their diverse interests.

Born in Chicago and raised in Mexico, Sylvia Tanguma moved to McAllen in 1982, attending and graduating from the district’s public schools.

Now, as McAllen AFT president, she’s finding a balance between leading a union of education professionals while still teaching in the classroom.

Here, Sylvia takes a brief moment out of her busy day to share her experience as a union leader and show what’s happening on the ground with her members.

Sylvia is one of our many exceptional leaders and members across Texas. Check out our past leader spotlights to hear from more of them. 

What’s been going on recently during the pandemic with McAllen AFT?

We are working with our schools to vaccinate everyone who wants a vaccine. Our school district has been working with the county since January to get as many school personnel vaccinated as possible. Our school district finally became a provider after we worked hard with the school board and administration to make it happen. Everyone who wanted a vaccine got one as of mid-March. Every teacher also received a bracelet so one person from their home could be vaccinated, too — the most vulnerable person that they live with. That’s one of the biggest wins we have right now in my opinion, and that just happened!

I also worked with the school board to get employees with underlying conditions the ability to work remote. We went back to in-person learning in November, and the people that were granted accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act — close to 170 employees — stayed remote. As of March 27, they’ve gone back in person and that’s because they’ve had the opportunity to get vaccinated. That’s been a great help, and I know a lot of people are feeling a lot of relief and feel safer.

We were the No. 1 hot spot in the nation back in July and August. Our numbers were up there for six to eight weeks in a row. All staff were stressed about returning to campus, and when I saw the opportunity to apply for a grant that I felt would make school staff feel safer, I applied for an AFT Innovation Fund COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant. We were granted $15,000 for air filtration so that kids and staff would feel some ease going back into the classrooms. Our campuses are old; they don’t have proper ventilation and often no windows.

Texas AFT also received a $10,000 grant and they gave it to us, so we granted the school district $25,000. The school district went above and beyond. The Innovation Grant helped them in their effort to get new filtration units instead of only new filters. The units last 10-12 years vs. new filters, which only last a month or two. All of this in an effort to give peace of mind to school staff, students, parents, and the community.

Tell us about yourself.  

I was born in Chicago, raised in Mexico, and I moved to McAllen in 1982. I attended McAllen schools and graduated from Memorial High School in McAllen.

I started working at McAllen ISD in August 2004. I was introduced to AFT in late 2005, and I’ve been a member since then. Right away, I became active, and I’ve been part of the union’s board the past 10 years. In 2015, we went to a leadership conference, where we were made aware of what was out there for us in terms of professional development. From there it was just a little whirlwind. I started learning more, advocating more, asking AFT to send more of us from McAllen to the conferences, so others could see how they can get people involved. I really liked the professional development — it was great — and I owe [former Educational Issues Director] Ana Pomar so much for showing me all that AFT has to offer.

I’ve been the president of McAllen AFT since October 2018. I love the advocacy that we bring together — all of us. It’s very strong and it’s very positive and I love it. This is my 21st year in teaching, I’m still teaching while being a part-time president. I’m currently a dyslexia specialist at the elementary level. It’s very hard to leave teaching, especially when you have so many years in.

What is it like to balance being president while also still teaching in the classroom?

I became president before the pandemic, and I felt it was manageable. But I will tell you that right now that during COVID times, it is not manageable. It has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do: trying to advocate for my members and be their voice. I have a great relationship with my principal and have built a good relationship with administration and the school board members. At times, I need to go against the district, and it’s a bit difficult doing that as an employee and union leader. But I have done it.

We need to fight for our profession. We need to have people who advocate for us, and that’s why I lead our union.

— Sylvia Tanguma

Why does this work matter to you?

As a teacher, I have seen it all and I have felt it. I have lived it. I have seen the way that we have been praised as educators, and just the same, I have seen and felt the way we have been mistreated. Most of the time we are undervalued. Our profession is not respected.

It’s so sad because we work so hard. We work long hours and do so much for our students. Yet, it almost seems like the community itself, and for sure state legislators, have no idea what a teacher goes through unless they live with one. They don’t really see how much work goes into being a teacher. We’re at work with students all day teaching, and then it’s not like you walk out of your office and you’re done for the day. It’s also not just grading papers, it’s phone calls, planning, conferences, assisting a child that needs extra help. We know some kids don’t have the means, so you’re out there trying to see what you can do for them. There is so much that school staff do in our line of work and it carries into our home.

As an educator, I feel we are undervalued and unappreciated, and that is one of my biggest fights. We need to fight for our profession. We need to have people who advocate for us, and that’s why I lead our union.

Are you a public school employee in McAllen ISD? Check out our membership benefits and join McAllen AFT today.