When Texas Tech University’s College of Education announced the names of the 2021-22 cohort members selected for the college’s Texas Education Policy Fellowship Program, Jenkins Elementary School special education teacher Delyla Ovalle-Bowyer learned that she would be part of a group of just 23 educators from across the state, from all sectors of education, chosen to participate in the yearlong program.
Now, after six months of meeting regularly, the group has taken its journey together to the next level, with Ovalle-Bowyer and other fellowship members traveling last week to Washington D.C. to attend the Washington Policy Seminar, sponsored by the Institute for Educational Leadership.
There, the Texas Tech fellowship members represented educators from the Lone Star State and, in addition to meeting with legislators at the U.S. Capitol, learned about emerging policy topics and initiatives to bring back to their classrooms, districts, colleges, and other educational institutions across Texas.
“It was just an amazing experience,” Ovalle-Bowyer said of her trip to the nation’s capital. “There were all these diverse backgrounds there, from business workers, to educators, to curriculum specialists and others.”
Ovalle-Bowyer is a Special Education SILC (Structured Integrated Learning Community) teacher at Jenkins, where she works both in groups and one-on-one with special education students on a variety of academic and social-emotional learning activities, coordinating with general education teachers to help reinforce classroom subjects, while also helping students grow.
The goal, she explained, is to give students – as well as their parents and general education teachers – tools that support them in their learning, help them adapt and be comfortable in various settings, and, ultimately, to promote greater inclusivity and equity for all students.
“I know they’re still elementary school students, but you can always tell them that there’s something more out there,” said Ovalle-Bowyer, explaining how she uses lessons and knowledge drills, story time, yoga and breathing techniques, and other activities to encourage her special education students to stand up for themselves, overcome challenges, and keep progressing.
I tell them, ‘Don’t let that label stop you,’ she said.
Growing up, Ovalle-Bowyer wasn’t a stranger to education. Her step-father – who helped raise her from the time she was very young – was a teacher who later became an assistant principal and eventually a campus principal. Although she initially resisted the idea of becoming a teacher herself, early volunteer experiences planted the seeds that would later lead to her current role in the classroom.
“When I was in high school, my dad let me volunteer at his school, and I was working with a student with dyslexia,” Ovalle-Bowyer recalled. “Every day when I was done with school, I would go to his school, where he was principal, and I would go and I would help this student. And by the end of the school year, from a reading level A, they went to level D. You see the growth!”
Inspired by that and similar experiences, Ovalle-Bowyer eventually earned her bachelor’s from University of Houston-Downtown and began teaching in Houston ISD. She later went on to complete a master’s degree in special education at Sam Houston State University, focusing on low-incidence disabilities, autism, and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), all of which have helped her in her work with her Spring ISD students since joining the district in 2018.
Over the years, an active interest in education policy has led her to a number of opportunities. Last year, she was selected for a summer fellowship with Latinos for Education, joining a group that also included Spring ISD Superintendent Dr. Lupita Hinojosa. That experience helped lead to the Texas Tech program, giving Ovalle-Bowyer a more in-depth look at state and national policies that impact education legislation.
As a Hispanic educator who works with many students identifying as black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), Ovalle-Bowyer said the fellowship program has been an eye-opening experience, one that’s now got her studying up on teacher retention strategies and looking for ways to bring more people – including more teachers – into important conversations around education.
“I guess with BIPOC people in general – and with being Latina – what hits most is our students need to see us in the classrooms more, and we need to retain Latinx and BIPOC people more in the classroom,” Ovalle-Bowyer said. “Our students need to see themselves in a teacher. It builds connection. It builds relationships. It builds a community. I think it all is interconnected.”
Ovalle-Bowyer said she loves her classroom and working with her students, but has also been troubled over the past few years seeing more than a few fellow teachers burn out and leave the profession. She said the seminar in Washington – together with her experience this year in the Texas Tech fellowship program – has convinced her that everyday educators’ voices need to be part of the larger conversation.
“A key takeaway from what I heard from the educators there – and continue to hear – is that educators need to have a seat at the table when it comes to education,” Ovalle-Bowyer said. “We need to continue to have leaders that work in classrooms.”
She admitted that teacher overwhelm and burnout is a complex problem, one without easy solutions, but also encouraged teachers to find ways – even small ones – to get more involved and engaged.
“Make your voice heard,” Ovalle-Bowyer said, “and go forward in learning more about education policy. We can make change, and it starts with us.”