First Person

Voices: I love you too much to let you fail

Denver teacher Vanessa Lugo-Acevedo was recently honored by the White House. The daughter of immigrants, she describes why a child’s cultural background must be viewed as an asset.

There are no words to adequately express how deeply honored I am to be receiving the Champions of Change award. As a Hispanic female, a child of immigrants and an English language learner, I feel that my entire life I have been preparing to engage in this work in our community.

Upon graduating from UCLA in 2010, I entered the profession of teaching through Teach for America, an alternative licensure program founded by Wendy Kopp, whose mission is to place high-achieving college graduates as teachers in our highest-need schools. I was placed as a bilingual educator, meaning I could be hired as anything from a pre-K teacher to a high school Spanish teacher.

I will never forget my first and only teaching interview with the staff at Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. It lasted for about 15 minutes over Skype. It was the last question and my answer to that question that changed my life: Why should we hire you over anyone else?

My response: I see myself reflected in the students that I will be teaching. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood and I received free lunch at school. My parents are immigrants from Mexico and when I began school, they did not speak English and neither did I. I want to demonstrate to my students and families that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. 

Querer es poder. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Reflecting my students racially, culturally and linguistically

In my classroom, grassroots transformational change has revolved around the idea that a student’s background and culture should be an asset. It should never be considered a barrier to success. This mindset has illuminated my path in education both in and outside of the classroom.

In my practice as a bilingual educator, my belief is carried out in viewing and using my students’ and families’ native language as a sacred tool to learn English and in English. It has helped increase student engagement in my classroom by ensuring that the lessons I teach my students are reflective of who they are racially, culturally and linguistically.

As a first-year teacher, this began as simply making sure the classroom environment was representative of the students in our classroom as well as being intentional about the texts that I selected for our read aloud, making sure that they reflected my student’s cultures and their interests.

When I saw how much more my students enjoyed the books that had characters that looked like them, I was motivated to make my curriculum student-centered. I began to design more learning experiences that affirmed the diversity within our classroom incorporating students’ native language, musical interests as well as favorite foods.

In order for students to value and see their background and culture as an asset, we as educators MUST see our students’ cultures and backgrounds as assets.

The tragic effects of sympathy and excuses

Culture and background can only be seen as an asset when, as a nation, we cease to look at our students and families of color from a deficit perspective. I have seen firsthand the tragic effects of sympathy and excuses for why students cannot learn. I believe that this is part of the problem in our education system today.

Sympathy and excuses must stop.

As a nation, we must come to terms with the fact that our kids and families do not need our sympathy. Let us vow to take an asset-based perspective, seeing our students and families for who they are: strong, intelligent, and capable human beings with rich, vast, and varied life experiences.

In my time as an educator and my lifetime as a student, I have found that the key to success in school lies in building solid, positive relationships with students, families, caretakers and the community at large and maintaining high expectations for all regardless of circumstance.

Our students and families need to know that we love them too much to let them fail, the future of our nation depends on this. To do this, we must know who our students are and what their hopes and dreams are – because if we cannot motivate them and inspire them, how do we expect to teach them?

More than a mouthpiece for the powerless

Outside of the classroom, my work in education has revolved around systemic transformational change in the realm of teacher education and support.

As a Teach for America corps member, I felt that the program’s programming around diversity, community and achievement left much to be desired especially since the students we were about to teach were children of color. As a result, I have spent the past two years working with Teach for America to increase corps members understanding of our students of color and our English language learners.

This past summer I worked as a corps member advisor, partnering with 12 promising new teachers from Hawaii, Ohio, Indianapolis, Colorado, New Mexico and Phoenix to support them in developing the skills they will need to feel prepared to enter their classroom this fall.

Additionally, I worked closely with an amazing team of our 14 staff members charged with the task of facilitating a series of sessions on diversity, community and achievement. The sessions explored topics of race, class, and real and perceived lines of differences, all topics that are pertinent to both new and current teachers in the landscape of our public schools.

In my work, my goal is to be more than a mouthpiece for those who often feel powerless. My goal is to empower them so that they feel the confidence and exuberance to share their stories, their hopes and their dreams.

This blog is cross-posted from the White House’s Champions of Change website. For more stories by educators, visit the site.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.