Christina’s Story: Teacher Shares Power of Latino Leadership in Schools

By: R.D. Leyva

For students of all backgrounds, having a diverse teaching staff provides a learning environment with a wide range of experiences and perspectives and fosters lasting personal relationships. While teachers from all backgrounds are needed across the sector, it is particularly important for Latino students, who make up a quarter of the school-aged population, to see themselves represented in their teachers. This is a powerful visual representation of opportunities available to them.

Christina Jusino is a “loud and proud” Latina teacher who recognizes the impact of culture and shared understanding, as a lever for students’ success. Though she never had a Latino teacher growing up, she committed to becoming an educator and honing her craft to support all her students attain a quality education.

In the fourth and final video series for Hispanic Heritage Month, we share Christina’s story as a teacher in Greater Boston. Christina reflects on her experiences in education, why she joined the inaugural cohort of the Aspiring Latino Leaders Fellowship, and what keeps her motivated as a teacher dedicated to increasing Latino representation in education.

Learn more about Christina’s story and share this video!

 

Read Christina’s full interview to learn more about why Latino leadership in education matters.

Featured Latino Voice
Christina Rosa Jusino
Middle School Science Educator

Tell us who you are and what you do.

I am a middle school science educator currently, and I’ve also taught 9th grade biology previously. I’ve taught in both Boston, and in Lawrence. During my time in Lawrence I was an advanced educator which means that I take on a special project at the school. As a teacher leader at the school, my project was around restorative justice practices which takes a stronger look at our culture systems and identifies ways that we can better meet our students’ social, emotional and mental wellness.

How did you get involved with Restorative Justice?

Restorative Justice takes a strong look at how do we meet the holistic child. So not just how do we help them grow academically, but also how do we help them grow socially and emotionally. When you think about communities that are predominantly low income, most of the time they also have higher crime rates and issues of trauma. Students bring that to the school. If there isn’t a space in school to help them address that trauma and work through that, then it will play out in the classroom- whether through negative behaviors or lower achievement. So by taking a restorative justice approach, we are saying that we will try to meet the whole child and not only focus on their academics. We recognize that there is a connection between what they’re experiencing in their communities and in their home lives, and what’s happening at school.

I got involved because as a child growing up in a low income community, I myself went through certain traumas.

Also, throughout my time as an educator, it was obvious that students were bringing that in to school. So I wanted to know how best to meet their needs. That’s where the project and my passion grew from.

Describe what the Latino narrative is like, and how do you think you can help reshape it.

I think that the Latino narrative is different depending on who you ask. If you look at media and news, it paints a negative picture of our Latino communities, where the Latino narrative is of crime and of low achievement. Whereas if you ask the Latino community, it is one of resilience and hard work. It is one that says, as a parent, I would do anything for my child so that they can have a better life than I did. From the students’ perspective what you see is I will do anything possible to pay back all the hard work of my parents and what they have done for me and the opportunities that they have provided me.

I try to reshape the Latino narrative for my students by focusing on the latter. By helping them realize that they already have demonstrated so much resilience in their lives and so have their families. This is something that’s already part of them. So when I’m asking them to take on a hard question or problem or task or project in class, they can feel like they can persevere because they have  already done it in so many ways in their lives, and that this is just applying what they already know- what’s already inside of them- to something new.

What are some barriers that Latino students face? How do these barriers compare to other students?

One of the main barriers Latino students face in particular is definitely around language. And that’s not specific to only students who come in and their first language is Spanish. Yes, there is a barrier there because they have to work harder to understand what the teachers are saying if the teachers’ only way of communicating is in English. They’ll also have a harder time with trying to communicate themselves in English. Additionally, what also gets missed is students who grew up in US and their first language may be English but at home they’re still speaking Spanish, or at home their parents were a second generation so they may not have fluent and proficient English. So what ends up happening is yes I speak English but my English is not as proficient as my white counterparts or my white peers. Because the language at home might not be a college level proficiency in English, the student is behind in their ability to comprehend the language and to communicate it. I think too often we think this only affects students in their ELA classrooms, but really it’s across all of them. It’s whether or not they understand what the question is asking them, whether they can read the scenario that is taking place in the math problem, whether they can then communicate the answer in a way that whoever else is reading it understands what they’re trying to say. As a teacher, oftentimes we know what our students are trying to say even when they’re not saying it correctly, but they have to be able to communicate that on their own to somebody who doesn’t know them as well.

I think the other barrier that Latino students face in particular too, is not seeing role models in the classroom as teachers or in the school that reflect their own identities. We ask them to aspire to greatness and to these careers in the US- that’s what their parents brought them over for if they come from a different country. We want them to aspire to live the “American dream” yet we don’t provide enough examples for them. The examples they do have aren’t people that they know, or people they can connect with. It’s great to have a role model who maybe is an athlete or celebrity, but it’s even better when you know that person, when you can say: look, they’ve gone through these challenges in their lives and they’ve made it this far, and I know them and I can talk to them, and they’re readily available if I want to have that conversation.

What does it feel like to be one of the few Latina teachers in schools?

As a Latino leader, there are so many positives. I genuinely enjoy connecting with my students at a level that I know they can’t always connect with all their teachers on.

There is also a burden, a guilt that we feel if we can’t reach all students. There is a narrative out there that people say to teachers like: ” Well if you’ve touched just one person’s life, then you’ve done your job.” I wonder if that’s the same narrative that exists in predominantly white spaces. If it’s ok to say to a teacher at a predominantly white or affluent school that it’s ok if just one of your students succeeds and makes it. It’s ok if you were just able to connect with just one student. I don’t think that would be the case. I don’t think that would be the narrative that would be ok there. So, I often feel guilty if I allow that to be my own narrative.

At the same time, I know that it’s impossible for me to reach all of my students at that level. There was a time where I had approximately 150 students. I would teach 75 students one day, and the other day I’d repeat the lesson with the other 75. The idea of being able to forge that many meaningful relationships and be a consistent figure in their lives not just that year, but over the course of several years. And be able to be that role model for them, that’s a very daunting task and a task that you can’t take on alone as just one teacher. And it speaks to the need for more Latino teachers, it speaks to the need for more Latino teachers standing in front of our students. We need more representation so that more of those relationships can happen and it doesn’t rest on just one teacher to make all of those relationships happen.

How did you learn about and become involved with Latinos for Education?

I got involved with Latinos for Education when the founder and CEO, Amanda Fernandez, reached out personally. We had connected via another organization, which speaks to the small world of Latino educators out there. We talked a lot about what the fellowship entails, whether or not I’d be interested. Ultimately I made the decision to apply because of the fellowship piece of it. There are a lot of programs out there that do a great job at developing you as a leader, but this specific program helped identify others who share my culture, who share my background, who share my story, who share my experiences to bring us together in fellowship to talk about leadership. And what it’s done for me is made me realize that my leadership story needs to include my identity in it. For so long leadership to me was something that was very white, patriarchal because that’s what it looks like for the majority of our society, and it never quite fit me. So it was hard to see myself as a leader when that wasn’t who I was.

When I joined the fellowship what I realized was there are lots of different ways to be a leader and I have to lead unapologetically from my own identity. And so now I use that to really share my voice more than I have before. I don’t think as much about how am I communicating this and will it make everyone feel comfortable, but rather am I communicating in a way that makes me feel comfortable? That’s been a huge shift- me being able to speak from own voice, from my own experiences and sharing my own story in my own way, and not in a way that is ascribed to me by someone else.

How did you get into the field of education?

I didn’t join the education field, I think the education field found me. It called me. I was pre-med in college and I had every aspiration to go to medical school. Then a recruiter from Teach for America contacted me and sat down with me and talked to me about the disparities that exist for students of color nationwide. Not that I didn’t know them from my own life, but it definitely highlighted the need for more teachers. So I said OK, it’s a two year program and I could still go on to medical school, great. That’s what I’ll do and in the process I’ll be able to form such great relationships and be a role model for others. This sounds amazing. In my second year, I was like wow, being a teacher is so much more complicated than it looks. It’s also so much more fulfilling than I anticipated it to be. I thought that I was going to be able to master it in two years, and that was naive of me. Becoming a master at being a teacher is a lifelong journey and so what I decided in that moment was that I wanted to go on that journey.

So education really called me, the students pulled me in. The love that we shared, the camaraderie that I had with other teachers, the excitement that I felt when they were actually able to grasp and concept and the growth that they experienced at the end of the year was really what made my decision to say that this was the right career path for me.

Did you have a Latino leader to look up to when you were growing up?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a Latino teacher! Growing up, I can’t recall any Latino teacher that I had who looked and sounded like me, nor do I recall being in classrooms with people who looked and sounded like me. Tracking in education was a common practice growing up, and because I was academically gifted, I was oftentimes in classrooms where I was the only Latina. It was very lonely. In middle school, high school and college, I remember just being very lonely and not having a lot of representation while being in school to be able to say OK, this is what I want to aspire to.

Later in my years in college, I met some women that were part of a Latina sorority, it was called Latinas Promoviendo Comunidad, or Lambda Pi Chi Sorority, Incorporated. It was the first time that I had met Latina women who shared my story, who shared my experiences, and I didn’t feel judged either. Growing up in the setting where I didn’t have a lot of Latinos around, I always felt like I wasn’t Latino enough. When I met them, I realized that our stories were very similar and I felt validated in my identity. I felt that I could aspire to more now. Through that network, I have since formed relationships with Latinas who are in all sectors of society. They’re in Law, they’re in the medical field, they’re business owners, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re presidents and CEOs of their companies. And they are now the women that are role models for me because they represent what I’ve always strived for in my life. So I really think that for me, my role models came from my sorority.

I of course always had my family as role models, but I think one of the narratives that we hear in Latino families too is I want you to aspire for more than I have. But that was hard for me to visualize when I didn’t see what that more was. I wanted it, I wanted to live up to what it was that my grandparents and parents wanted for me, but I didn’t know what that looked like. So while they were role models for the kind of person that I should be, when it came to the kind of career I wanted and how I wanted to be an active citizen in my community and my society, that was harder to visualize.

How do you think your life would have been different if you had a Latino teacher or role model earlier in your life?

If I had a Latino teacher in my life, several things come mind that would’ve been different.  One, I think I wouldn’t have felt as isolated, or embarrassed at school. I wouldn’t have felt as lonely to be honest. I think my family would have also felt that they could connect to the school better as well. They would have felt more comfortable going to school, talking with my teachers, figuring out ways to help me. I was left alone to do my work when I got home because it just wasn’t the place that my parents or grandparents felt that they could support me. But if they felt that there was somebody that they could connect with at school, I think that they would’ve taken a stronger role in my education in that way.

I think also, if I had a Latino teacher then I would’ve had someone to talk to about financial aid or the college process. I wouldn’t have felt embarrassed asking questions that I was embarrassed asking people at the time because I would’ve felt that there was somebody who wasn’t going to judge me as much, or who maybe knew my story or knew why I was asking those questions.

How do you think parents are impacted by their children having a Latino leader that they can relate to?

I think having Latino leaders is also important for our parents and families, not just for the students. This year, I’ve already seen it take shape in many ways. One of which is that I have a huge Puerto Rican flag in my room and so immediately when families walk in they’re like “Oh, you’re Caribbean?!” Because I teach a lot of students from different places in the Caribbean. And I’m like “Yup! Loud and proud.” And immediately we connect with understanding what it means to have pride for your culture and your identity.

Second, also just sharing where I grew up. I grew up in New York, in the Bronx. One of my students just came over from Brooklyn and that was his thing. He was like “Oh I’m from New York, too.” So I was like ok, let’s talk about that, that’s really cool. The family felt that sense of having someone here they could connect with. That’s what it really is about. It’s about what are the different connections that you can make as a family member with a teacher that makes it feel more comfortable and more inviting into the classroom space. Particularly for Latino students, I think it matters even more when you can share the language too. When the parent doesn’t have to feel embarrassed about whether or not the teacher will understand them, or whether or not things will be communicated appropriately so that they can advocate for their child. So for me, as a Latino teacher, I know that whenever I have the opportunity to make the parent feel comfortable whether through language or culture, I make that happen. I’ve also met with families to just grab lunch or dinner in the area and ask them questions about where to find the best things in the area, ask their opinion. Those things forge a relationship between us where they feel like they can be open and honest, even about fears and concerns with this teacher.

How can teachers who are not Latinos or people of color, create that bridge with parents from other countries and backgrounds?

In terms of relationships with families and with parents, I think the biggest lever is just that they need to know that you care about their student, and that you are willing to understand them as more than just the child that’s in their classroom. And so even though I’m a Latino teacher, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work for the relationship. It doesn’t mean that the parents are going to immediately trust me, it doesn’t mean that the student is going to immediately trust me. I have to work to make sure that they understand that I’m there for the right reasons and that I want to get to know them beyond just what they’re putting down on a paper for me and turning in for a grade. And the parents want to know the same thing. So even if you don’t identify as a Latino, there are ways to communicate that you’ll want to learn about. I think that the first part is that you have to come from a place of humility. It’s something that I learned in my first year of teaching. My students taught me, and my parents taught me what humility looked like. It meant that you need to know who I am, and my background and respect and appreciate what I try to do in order to then work in partnership with me. It wasn’t just going to be something that was given to me. When you start to see the relationship with the family as a partnership, that will lead to greater options for children, specifically children of color and especially for Latino children.

What are you doing to increase Latino representation? And what to you hope the end result of your efforts would be?

What I see programs like Latinos for Education striving for is to get more Latino leaders present whether it’s at Boardroom tables, or whether it’s standing in front of classrooms of students. One way that I know they are working on that and one way I consider myself to be working on that is just through networking. More people need to know what we’re doing, and need to hear our stories and when they hear our stories I think it’s hard to say no I don’t want to be part of that. You are just drawn to it, of course you want to be part of it. So I think that is the huge lever. Do people even know we’re there and know our stories and know our struggles? Because if not, then they don’t know how to help. I think when it comes to actually getting more Latinos into education like physically there, I think it’s a system change. And that’s what makes it hard, it’s not something that I feel like I can do on my own. It is something that we really have to look at as a society and say is this a priority for us? And it should be. And if so, how is everybody going to work together to make this happen? How are people going to work at it, not just at the K through 12 system but in college, in career paths, in counseling, within our communities in terms of labor force offering more opportunities and pathways. It is definitely a systemic situation. Equity in education would look like having more Latino teachers in front of our Latino students so that you don’t have people like me going through their whole life without being able to name one Latino teacher I’ve had.

Why do you love teaching?

I love teaching because there are no better people in the world than kids. I truly believe that. They show you unconditional love. This is my eighth year teaching and I feel that I’ve been able to sustain the rigor of the job because I receive notes and letters from kids that just encourage me, honestly. They see how hard I am working for them and so they want to celebrate that in the same way that I celebrate them when they’re working hard. That speaks to how meaningful your relationship can be with the students. It speaks to the level of impact that you can have on their lives. When I speak with students now who I taught previously, it surprises me what they bring up, what they remember. The stories that I thought I was just sharing in that one moment, for them really changed their mindset on something. I had a student who just recently started her first year in college and she said that she remembered the story that I told about going to college debt-free and working for every scholarship that I got. If I wanted that to be my reality, which I needed it to be because I didn’t have the financial foundation that I needed to make it happen otherwise, that they could do it too, but had to work hard for it. She came to see me the last day of school last year to tell me that she was going to college debt-free because she remembered me telling that story and it stuck with her. That is the impact that a teacher can have.

What is one message that you want to share with other Latinos in the education field as teachers and leaders?

To other Latino leaders especially in the education field, I would say just keep going. There are so many reasons for why this job is hard. I can’t even name all of them, but we need you around students. We need you in the classrooms, we need you in leadership, we need your presence there, even though it may not always feel like the most appealing job. My father likes to say it is a thankless job, and it is. You’re needed because our students deserve to see themselves reflected in our society and they spend the majority of their time in school, so we need you there.

What would you say about the other leaders that you met through the Latinos for Education fellowship?

When I joined Latinos for Education as part of the Aspiring Latino Leaders Fellowship, I was actually surprised that there were other Latinos doing the work that I am doing and that they’re in these other sectors because I just didn’t know who they were. Another important message I’d like to share is that we need to know each other, we need to stay connected with one another, we need to be supporting one another because again, it feels very lonely especially when you’re just that one Latino at your school and it can feel like a daunting task if you don’t have people on your side and working with you. If you don’t know who those other people are then you’re not going to be able to sustain this job. So, definitely making sure that we stay connected and that we’re always there for each other.

What has been your experience with Latinos in the school system in other roles?

In terms of Latino representation at the district-level, one thing that I’ve done specifically in my career is look for leaders of color. I started off in schools where quickly, I felt like maybe my voice isn’t being heard as much here because the people who are leading the school aren’t prioritizing my voice enough. And in general just people of color’s voices enough. I now find myself in a school where it is the case that I have principal who is a woman of color. It is amazing to work for someone who I don’t always feel like I have to tiptoe around, where I feel like I can communicate in a way that feels authentic to me. There is a shared understanding there. At the same time, I have yet to work for a school leader who identifies as a Latina or Latino. And most of the time, other people in the building who identify as Latino are pigeonholed to a specific job. So yes, there are other Latino adults in the school, but they tend to be isolated to be a Spanish teacher, or to being our custodial staff, or cafeteria staff. I think it’s important for our students to know that those aren’t the only positions in our schools that they can aspire to. Those people are needed, most certainly- and I’m so grateful to have them in our school setting because they need to be present as well. But their voices also need to be heard. Currently, they’re not in positions of power where their voices are being heard. So I think it’s important that we have Latinos at all sectors so that power is shared and that all voices can be present.

R.D. serves as the Program Director at L4E. He leads the talent work to connect L4E members to high-impact roles, professional development opportunities and other Latino leaders across the country. He lives in Washington, DC.