Sonia Nieto and Alicia López agreed to answer a few questions in writing about their new book, Teaching, A Life’s Work: A Mother-Daughter Dialogue.
Sonia Nieto is professor emerita of language, literacy, and culture at the College of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The author or editor of 12 books, she has received numerous awards for her scholarship, teaching, and advocacy, including nine honorary doctorates.
Alicia López is an award-winning ESL teacher and former assistant principal in Amherst, Mass. Active in the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, she is the author of a blog, maestrateacher.com, where she reflects on teaching, parenting, and life.
Larry: Sonia, “Why won’t they listen to me?” is a question that you write you asked yourself in your first year of teaching, and it’s a question that most of us ask ourselves, too, during our own early careers. Can you share how you got through that period and how you recommend new (and veteran teachers with challenging classes) cope with that same feeling?
When I started teaching, I thought students would automatically pay attention to me. Since most of my students were either Puerto Rican or African-American and growing up in circumstances similar to mine, I figured they would naturally relate to me. I learned the hard way that respect and connection aren’t necessarily automatic; they need to be earned.
I also began to realize that my students’ circumstances were in some ways quite different from mine. For example, as a young child, my classmates came from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds: Some were Puerto Rican like me, others were first-generation European immigrants, and still others were African-American. Just a few years later, by the time I started teaching, New York neighborhoods had become hyper-segregated, and the schools reflected this segregation. All my students lived in poverty, all were African-American or Puerto Rican, and many spoke Spanish as their native language. The vast majority of the teachers, on the other hand, were middle class, white, and monolingual English speakers. Many probably knew little about their students’ backgrounds. Low expectations of students were one result.
Even though there was a great deal of diversity among the population, there was little interaction among the various communities, and this lack of awareness and knowledge were also reflected in the curriculum, pedagogy, and other school practices, policies, and traditions. Students sometimes responded to their teachers’ lack of understanding of their sociocultural realities with disrespect and unruly behavior, though I wouldn’t have been able to put it into those words at the time. So, thinking back on it, there were many reasons why the students wouldn’t listen to me or most other beginning teachers.
On the day before school started, the day they called “New Teacher Orientation” (though not much orientation happened), our assistant principal announced that at the end of the previous school year half the teachers had quit. This gave me some inkling of the instability and turmoil in the school. It took me some time to ask myself another question that I hadn’t previously considered: “Why would they listen to me?” What the students mostly yearned for was stability, yet many of these young people had lost all confidence and faith in their school.
How did I cope with the feelings of failure and despair that I felt at the time? There were no shortcuts, of course, but some changes did help. I tried—not always successfully—not to blame the kids for the situation. They were for the most part reacting to the school and societal context. But I worked hard and did my best to connect with my students. In spite of the upheaval, within a few months I had earned the respect, and even the affection, of many of my students.
Developing trust took longer. Why should they trust me? They probably wondered if I would return at the end of the year (I did), knowing that so many teachers left each year. I also tried to give due credit and well-earned praise, something that many of them craved but hadn’t often heard before. In terms of the curriculum, I tried my first tentative steps at adapting curriculum so that it would be more interesting and meaningful to their lives and realities than the highly scripted curriculum I was given on the first day of class. I recalled how as a child, I had rarely heard any reference to my culture, background, or experiences in school and I began to understand how a more relevant curriculum might have helped me feel that I belonged. This was long before curriculum materials on diversity were available, so I had to create my own. And, of course, experience alone makes a difference because it helps build one’s confidence in a way that nothing else can.
Larry: The challenges faced by teachers of color is discussed in the book. What should districts and schools do to provide support to them, and why do you think that’s important?
As black, Asian, and Latinx student populations increase in the nation’s public schools, it is more important than ever for districts to recruit teachers of color. Our students of color need to see themselves represented in the teachers who stand in front of them every day, and in most schools that is not happening. However, supporting teachers of color doesn’t stop with recruiting and hiring them. In fact, I think it’s almost more important to support them once they’re hired and already teaching. Teaching can be an isolating profession, and for teachers of color in majority-white-staffed schools, it can be even more isolating.
Human-resources departments can support their teachers of color by offering support networks within the district or joining with other schools to do so. They can create programs and pathways for teachers to further their education and therefore invest in their futures in the school system. Within schools, administrators can create strong mentoring programs, separate from other programs, for and by teachers of color. Schools can make teachers of color feel welcome in their schools by valuing their professionalism and expertise and getting them involved in leadership roles. But administrators and other staff should be careful about relying only on teachers of color to plan assemblies, displays, or events for Latino Heritage Month, Black History Month, and other such celebrations. At the same time, it’s important for administrators to recognize that teachers of color probably do want to be involved in such events—just perhaps not always to spearhead them. If we want to attract and keep teachers of color, support before and after teachers are hired, even for veteran teachers of color, is crucial.
Larry: Can you elaborate on your point about “teacher identity” and bringing it into the classroom?
I realized early on in my teaching career the value of sharing my identity with my students. When I started teaching, I was 25 years old, not much older than my students. At first, I thought it was more important for them to like me than for them to see me as a good teacher, and eventually, I figured out how to combine both of those. Gradually, I realized that sharing with them information such as my cultural background, my family (to a certain extent), favorite music or foods, and so on was a great way to connect with my students.
I began to start all my classes by sharing a letter about myself to my students. I found this to be very effective in getting students to share something about themselves. At times, even some of the quietest students would surprise me by writing three or four pages describing themselves or their families and telling me about their favorite music or their pets. It was also, as I hoped, an instant way to connect with my students of color, especially those who had grown up in Spanish-speaking homes. This is a practice I still use to this day with ELL students, and I still find it a great way to share my identity and learn about theirs.
Larry: You write about the need for “subversive educators.” What does that mean in practice, and why do you think it’s important?
I know that the very word “subversive” strikes fear in many teachers. Alicia and I both write about this in Teaching, A Life’s Work. We’ve both tried to be subversive in our own way in our respective teaching situations in spite of how different those situations have been. But subversive means different things to different people. I see subversive as being courageous and committed, not as taking crazy risks that can lead to being fired. Although that too can happen, for me being subversive can be as innocent as bringing up questions about a highly prescriptive curriculum at a staff meeting: “Why do we use this?” “Is there an alternative?” “What can we do to change it?”
Being subversive can also mean creating curriculum that is more inclusive, honest, and interesting than the traditional fare. In fact, doing so can sometimes be downright revolutionary if students haven’t previously had access to such curricula. Being subversive can mean taking a principled stand on practices that are rarely questioned such as homogeneous grouping or disciplinary policies that disadvantage some students over others. In other words, there are many ways to be subversive.
Some of the most subversive teachers I know are also highly collaborative. To them, being subversive means not only taking personal risks but also bringing others along as part of one’s commitment to students and equitable education. I’ve seen too many cases where educators think that being subversive means being a “lone wolf,” striking out on one’s own to make a point. And though this is certainly needed sometimes, I’ve always felt that there’s not only safety in numbers but also power in numbers, that is, the more people you can get on your side to help change an unfair policy, the better chance you’ll have of changing it. Of course, being subversive isn’t always easy, so we all have to decide what’s possible for us both individually and collectively. I’ve met teachers who think nothing of joining a picket line despite the possible risks they’re taking, and others who describe themselves as “quiet change agents” because they find it difficult to take action in a more public way. I’ve met others who end up becoming subversive through an incremental process where one day they just decide they’ve had enough and need to take action.
I think that being subversive is a continuum, and nobody has to fit a particular mold. A good example can be found in our book: Mary Ginley, a phenomenal teacher who devoted 42 years to the profession, wrote about how she was distressed by the so-called “Honors Assembly” in the last school where she taught because of how marginalized it made some students feel. As a result, she quietly boycotted the assembly for several years. You’ll need to read the book to find out what happened when she was discovered. This was the case of a teacher facing the consequences of becoming subversive, and it’s an example of the tremendous courage it sometimes takes to be a teacher.
Larry: You talk about Paulo Freire’s impact on your teaching. Can you elaborate on it, and what his work might say to today’s educators?
I first read Paulo Freire in 1975 when I started my doctoral studies, though it’s a shame I hadn’t heard of him before that because I think it would’ve changed how I taught both my elementary and junior high school students and, later, my preservice and practicing teacher students when I became a teacher educator at Brooklyn College. As soon as I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the first book of Paulo’s I read, everything changed for me. The way he described education as either domesticating or liberating was absolutely new to me, something I had never thought about before. The idea that every decision we make in education is a political decision was also riveting. This idea alone changed how I developed curriculum, how I designed pedagogy, how I related to preservice and practicing teachers, how I selected the texts for my courses, even how I arranged the seating in my classes, and this was true throughout my career.
Paulo’s description of teachers as “transformative intellectuals” helped me understand in a way I never had before that what we as educators do is intellectual work. We don’t merely follow a syllabus without interacting with it; we question it, adapt it, sometimes even reject it. I had always been attracted to the intellectual work of learning but none of my education professors or, after I became a teacher, my supervisors, had ever described teaching in that way. I welcomed this aspect of teaching; for me, it was like a long drink of water during a drought. I don’t think I had ever been as excited about learning until I met Paulo Freire, first in his books and later in person. And I hope that the level of excitement and enthusiasm his ideas unleashed for me were evident to the thousands of students I taught afterwards.
After completing my doctoral studies, I took a position as a teacher educator at the University of Massachusetts where I stayed for 25 years. Paulo Freire’s philosophy was a constant presence in all the classes I taught. Even though I don’t believe he ever mentioned the term “multicultural education"—which was my field—I came to realize that his work was profoundly multicultural because it was fundamentally about equity and justice. Not only did I always include his books as required reading in my classes, but also at the end of each semester, I would ask my students to write a letter to Paulo telling him how his work had influenced their thoughts and practices concerning teaching. I sent the first batch of letters to him in his native Brazil sometime in the late 1980s after he had returned from exile. I continued asking students to write him a letter even after he died in 1997. It occurred to me, after rereading some of the many letters I had saved over the years, that this might make an interesting book for other educators to read. The result was Dear Paulo: Letters From Those Who Dare Teach, a book I edited in 2008 that included students’ letters. It was modeled after his book, Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
Freire, P. (1998). Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Nieto, S. (2008). Dear Paulo: Letters From Those Who Dare Teach. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
Larry: Thanks, Sonia and Alicia!
The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.