Representation in Schools Matters: How Teacher Diversity is Key to Moving Forward from the Pandemic
By: Lorena Lopera
When I was a kindergartener, I didn’t know how to speak English, but this made no difference to my teacher at the time, Ms. Sabori, who was a Latina educator. I was put into a class with all Spanish-speaking children, and my teacher made education fun because she knew how to connect with us, culturally and linguistically. My teacher also engaged with my parents. She constantly told my parents about how much she believed in my ability to succeed, and how she knew that I was going to be something special in this world. I don’t know what she saw in me, or if it was any different than what she saw in my peers, but all I know is that her words stuck with me. Her presence in my early education was foundational to my success later on.
There’s growing research and evidence to suggest that student outcomes are positively impacted when they are taught by teachers who share their diverse upbringing and perspectives, and I witnessed how true this was first-hand.
When I switched to a private school in third grade, I experienced a serious cultural shift in my education. All of my teachers and most of my classmates were white, and while I received a rigorous academic education, I often felt alone. None of my educators could speak with my parents, and I was frequently called upon to act as an interpreter for the school administration whenever a Spanish-speaking person came to the school. I felt tokenized, and alienated to a degree. I recall being singled out during the pledge of allegiance for my inability to pronounce certain sounds “correctly”. The shame I felt then is something I will never forget. I often think about the many Latino students in the Boston Public School system with similar backgrounds, and I feel energized to ensure they don’t have to go through what I endured. I’m driven by a vision to create educational spaces where students and families can feel supported, encouraged, and welcome in the classroom.
My own children have been lucky enough to have Latino educators throughout their lives. My son Joaquin is in a dual language school where he is learning to read and write in Spanish and English. At the age of 6 I see him reading and writing in Spanish, something I didn’t have the opportunity to do until I was in college. In our home, we often talk about how being bilingual is our super power, and this message is reinforced at Joaquin’s school. I know that he feels loved and affirmed in the classroom, and I can see him light up when he sees himself represented in the books, the curriculum, and the faces and languages of his teachers. This is what I want for all students – to be educated in a space where they feel affirmed and celebrated for who they are.
But we know this isn’t the reality everywhere. In the Boston Public School system, the quality of learning environments for teachers and students can vary drastically within the district as well as with neighboring districts. For the 2019-20 school year, only 11% of the teachers in Boston Public Schools identified as Latino, compared to 42% of the student population. Not only do these students lack representation in the classroom, but we know they face unique challenges, too. We know that one of the top concerns that Latino families in Massachusetts have during COVID-19 is the mental health and wellbeing of their children. Added to that is the challenge of actually keeping their children connected to the virtual classroom with WiFi and devices.
If we’re to move forward from this pandemic, then one key piece to solving some of our greatest challenges is having Latino representation and leadership at all levels of education. We need to be at the decision-making tables and in the classrooms. And we need to be intentional about involving caregivers in the decisions that will impact their children, too.
I’ve been encouraged to see Latino leaders using their platforms to amplify the voices of those who aren’t often heard. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve witnessed how family engagement has shifted amidst remote learning. In some school communities, real family engagement has been made possible, moving past some of the self-imposed barriers that previously existed. It gives me hope that we can literally meet some families where they are and truly support their needs moving forward.