Across the country, dozens of contentious policy debates have erupted over how teachers talk in the classroom about race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. But many educators say they have felt left out of the conversation.
A new fellowship program, run by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the Education Civil Rights Alliance, a collective effort of nonprofits, teachers’ unions, and civil rights groups, seeks to amplify teachers’ voices about how to preserve classrooms “as spaces of student-centered honest dialogue.”
The Voices for Honest Education fellowship is paid and open to nationally and internationally recognized award-winning educators in the United States. The educators spend a year engaging state legislators, training educators on coming legislation, and speaking out about the importance of “honest, affirming education.”
The inaugural five fellows—who are past state teachers of the year from Texas, Georgia, Colorado, Louisiana, and Massachusetts—released a report this month that outlines research that says affirming students’ identities in the classroom can improve academic outcomes. Culturally responsive teaching has also been found to increase students’ motivation, interest in content, and the perception of themselves as capable students.
Education Week spoke to three of the fellows—Tracey Nance, the 2020 and 2021 Georgia teacher of the year, Gerardo Muñoz, the 2021 Colorado teacher of the year, and Takeru “TK” Nagayoshi, the 2020 Massachusetts teacher of the year—about the state of education and their goals for the fellowship. None of these three educators are still in the classroom: Muñoz is now the manager of learning and development for Denver Public Schools, and Nagayoshi is the professional learning director of community events for Panorama Education.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your report focuses on the importance of student-affirming and honest education. What can that look like? Why is it so important?
Nance: We spoke to educators across the country—award-winning teachers like ourselves who are doing the work in the classrooms. They’re the ones speaking with parents. They’re the ones teaching from our state standards. When we’re talking about student-affirming education, we’re still starting with those state standards, but we’re talking about creating an environment where kids feel welcomed, where we invite them and every single one of their identities into the classroom, a space where their voice is valued, and where they have the freedom to ask and receive answers to questions honestly.
In this classroom, it’s also culturally responsive, and that doesn’t mean just providing multicultural materials for students. It also means making sure that the classroom curriculum represents the students who sit in our classrooms. The truth is, our country is more diverse than it’s ever been before. Our students deserve to be seen and for their histories to be told.
Muñoz: I grew up in a school where where the curriculum was divisive—there was a wall between myself and the curriculum. I couldn’t connect to the curriculum. I was sent messages that Mexican American people like me made no meaningful contributions to the growth and development of the United States of America. I never even read a novel by a Mexican American author until I was in college, and that’s inexcusable. I should have had the opportunity to understand my community, my neighborhood, my family, my father’s country of origin in a historical context.
To me, these student-affirming practices dissolve the walls that keep our kids apart from each other and keep our society apart from each other.
How does the legislation on how race and sexuality is discussed in the classroom or what LGBTQ students’ rights are in school affect this work?
Nance: I think it’s terrifying as an educator and parent living in Georgia where this legislation has already lifted off the ground. I’m worried that our state is the next one to have a law about, “don’t say gay.” It’s very harmful to our kids.
I think specifically about a little girl named Sarah who had four moms and lived with all four of them, as her original family had divorced and remarried. What does that say to kids when we tell them, “You can’t talk about home?” It doesn’t tell them to “don’t say gay.” It tells them, “don’t be gay.” ... We need to be giving them the right messages that they are every bit as worthy and every bit as loved as their classmates.
Muñoz: When I look at the work that I did over two decades alongside amazing scholars and amazing families and communities and of course students, I was getting to the point where I actually thought victory was around the corner in terms of representing everybody in classrooms. ... And now what we’re looking at is a really upsetting backlash.
Part of me looks at it and says, “Well, it’s the evolution of a fight that my ancestors were always fighting for dignity and for survival.” But I think the difference right now is the ways in which opponents of honest education are attempting to codify their intolerance and their narrow-mindedness and their harmful behaviors into law. These voices don’t represent everybody. It is a small portion of our population that is taking up a lot of space, making a lot of noise about these things.
And the legislation, if you look from state to state, is so unclear. It is confusing to teachers. So when teachers are actually saying, “OK, what are the things that I’m allowed to teach, that I’m not allowed to teach?” Much of this legislation, even in the same locality, is contradictory and sends mixed messages. So what happens is the majority of teachers who need these jobs to survive are going to say, “I’m not gonna touch any of this ‘cause it’s confusing.”
What do you think this all means for teachers’ longevity in the classroom, especially teachers from marginalized backgrounds?
Muñoz: When we think about the code-switching that is required of a lot of us when we walk into these professional settings already, and then to find ourselves targeted by these bad actors—that’s very dangerous. I think it has terrible implications for the need to put a teaching force in front of students that comes from those communities, that relates to those communities, that looks like those communities, and that has experiences that can be really helpful in ensuring that all kids have opportunities to succeed and to build a life that they want to build.
I think it does have tremendous implications of, “Wow. So you’re gonna erase my history? Maybe I don’t want to come into [teaching]. Why am I? You clearly don’t value me if you’re trying to erase who I am.”
During the fellowship, you’ll spend the next year emphasizing the importance of honest, affirming education. What will that look like?
Nance: We write weekly on a Medium blog, and we are contributing our thoughts in news articles [about] our own experiences in the classroom to really ground this and make sure that people know our hearts and know what we’re teaching in schools.
We know parents support their local schools. It’s all of this otherness that they don’t know about. Ignorance breeds fear. So we want to illuminate all of the work that educators are doing, and that we’re not here to indoctrinate anyone, but we are here to teach kids to have strong self-character and to look to honest history to solve today’s problems.
Muñoz: As we look at some of the misinformation that’s out there, that’s informing a lot of these legislative and policy decisions, I think there are a lot of wrongly informed assumptions. Do parents deserve a voice? Absolutely. Do kids deserve a voice? Absolutely. Do teachers deserve to be treated as the professionals that we are? Yes. These are not mutually exclusive goals. These are goals that have to happen together, otherwise it doesn’t work.
The way I envision the next year, learning from these incredible state teachers of the year, it’s a beautiful thing. What I’m hoping is to learn how to facilitate other voices to come in. ... We have to ensure that people feel safe and protected in their speech and their association. I would love to learn what honest education looks like from community to community.
Nance: In addition to that, we’ll be meeting with representatives and policymakers and writing op-eds that we’ll submit to national and local newspapers. We’re looking across the entire country because we’re seeing this impact everywhere, and it starts local.
A lot of times we’re seeing that it starts with well-funded parents’ rights groups. So we’re going to be giving trainings to school board members and getting trainings to parents and educators—just really trying to educate. We found that even amongst award-winning teachers, some have been unaware of what’s happening in their states.
How would you sum up the message you hope to share this coming year?
Nagayoshi: I think at its heart, it’s about having educators take back the narrative to what’s happening in our schools. Politicians making our education space a battleground is something that has both scared teachers away from the classroom, prevented folks from wanting to join the classroom, and at the end of the day, impacted the students who were there.
We, as folks who have been in the classroom [and] were teaching at the frontlines, know that what’s being set out there is not true. But oftentimes we’re not empowered to come together and explore what that is.
We also don’t have the best practices around countering that message and ways of articulating what honest and inclusive education looks like. This is a space that incubates a lot of those ideas and great minds together and pushes forth that counter to this narrative that we’re seeing.