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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.