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Curriculum Opinion

‘Why We Teach Now': an Interview With Sonia Nieto

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 09, 2016 11 min read
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Sonia Nieto agreed to answer a few questions about her book, Why We Teach Now.

Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture, College of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Sonia Nieto has devoted her professional life to issues of equity, diversity, and social justice. She has written numerous books including most recently, Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds: Culturally Responsive and Socially Just Practices in U.S. Schools (2013), Why We Teach Now (2015), and a memoir, Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education (2015). She is the recipient of many awards for her scholarship and advocacy, including six honorary doctorates, and in 2015 she was elected to the National Academy of Education.

LF: You write that Why We Teach Now is based on a “discourse of possibility.” Can you explain what you mean by that and how you think it compares/contrasts with how you see more typical education policy discussions taking place?

Sonia Nieto:

For the past couple of decades, we’ve been mired in a discourse of hopelessness. This is due to several factors, not the least of which has been the so-called “education reform movement” that has focused on rigid accountability, privatization, and the corporate takeover of public education, in effect stripping students and teachers of dignity and respect, and stripping the “public” out of public education. These policies and practices have resulted in the blaming of poor and marginalized communities as well as teachers for all the problems in public education. Rather than excite or motivate educators about their role in changing the situation, the climate of blame and retaliation has led to a massive exodus of teachers from the profession, the further alienation of the students who need the most support, and even large-scale cheating in an attempt to game the testing system. Hope has been hard to come by.

We should have seen these things coming. We can’t continue to blame teachers and the most vulnerable students for policies and practices over which they have little control. A good example is what is called “the achievement gap,” the difference in achievement between White students and students of color. I reject this term, preferring instead “opportunity gap” because many students of color and students living in poverty attend poorly resourced schools and simply haven’t had the kinds of opportunities and advantages that middle-class and wealthy students have had. To confirm this situation, all we need to do is visit schools in middle-class or wealthy neighborhoods and compare them with schools in poor neighborhoods. In most cases, there are enormous differences in the resources and opportunities they offer their respective students. And yet we continue to treat all students as if they’ve started out on a level playing field.

It’s for these reasons that I refer to the teachers featured in “Why We Teach Now” as engaged in “a discourse of possibility.” Whether they teach in cities or suburbs, large schools or small, early childhood or high school, they are filled with hope. But it is not a naïve hope, but instead a hope tempered by the reality of the situation in which they work and live. They’re realists with a sense of purpose and commitment. They know that the system is often rigged against the most vulnerable and yet they have hope in their students and themselves to resist and change the situation. Maria Rosario, a Chicago elementary school teacher, described it in this way in her essay: “Because schooling has always existed to indoctrinate young people into a system where the vote might be better controlled or their minds might be better molded to serve as members of the working class, I am able to be there to help my students dream of other possibilities for themselves” (p. 200).

LF: Your book is comprised of essays by educators about why they teach. I’m sure it would be hard to choose, but could you pick three insights from the collection that you think are particularly important for educators to hear?

Sonia Nieto:

You’re right, it is difficult! I’ve been tremendously inspired by the teachers who wrote essays for the book, and it is precisely because of their sense of hope and possibility that I continue to have hope in the future of public education, a hope that might otherwise seem displaced given the state of public education today. I’m grateful to them and to so many educators like them who continue to believe in the promise of public education.

Another insight reinforced by the teachers’ essays is that teaching is a profession that reflects our deep-seated values and our identities. As a result, many teachers enter the profession either because they had inspiring teachers and want to be like them, or because they had negative experiences in school and want to serve students like them so that they don’t have such experiences.

Sisters Jennifer Burgos-Carnes and Vanessa Burgos-Kelly, whose family moved to South Carolina from Germany when they were children, wrote about their struggles to maintain a sense of Latina identity in a place that, at the time, had little experience with Latin@ students. Alienated and alone, for years they felt marginalized by their schooling. In both of their cases, it was a sense of alienation that propelled them to become teachers so that their students of all backgrounds, and particularly their Latin@ students (now much more prevalent in South Carolina) would have more positive experiences. Vanessa, for example, mentioned one of the reasons she became a teacher, writing, “I wanted to become a positive role model for Latino students who may rarely see a Latino in an educational setting.” Identity came up in many of the teachers’ essays, but it wasn’t only their own identities but the identities of their students their backgrounds of all backgrounds that matter to teachers.

Mary Jade Haney, another teacher in South Carolina, recalled her own alienation as a young student, writing, “I teach to reclaim the education I received as a student of color in the public school system.” Challenging this sense of alienation for her students, she wrote, “I teach to ignite and inspire the passion for learning in the hearts of all children.” Her statement, “I teach because I am in a profession that balances the universe,” is one of the most eloquent statements about teaching that I’ve seen.

Change doesn’t come about simply because we wish it, another insight highlighted in the teachers’ essays. These teachers are activists, sometimes quietly and sometimes boisterously, whether in their classrooms, schools, districts, professional organizations, or even at the state and federal levels. Not all teachers need to be involved in all of these ways, but they all recognize that passivity leads not to change but to stagnation. Nina Tepper, who recently retired after more than three decades in the classroom, wrote about what brought her to teaching: “As a peace and justice activist in the 1960s and 1970s, I thought, ‘If I could make a difference in the world, it would be as a teacher.’” And that’s exactly what she did, in her case, through her teaching, professional writing, and continued activism in the community. In looking back on her career, she writes, “As a teacher, I had the capacity to influence child development and impact the future like no other profession.”

Teacher Jesse Hagopian, a social studies teacher in Seattle, Washington, took his activism far outside his classroom and school to the state and national levels. Hagopian wrote about the successful effort to eliminate the MAP test in his school and, subsequently, in the entire state. He connected this struggle to his impetus for becoming a teacher, writing, “I teach because I know it is possible to organize students, parents, teachers, and administrators to fight for an education system that is democratically run by the people who make up that system, rather than the whims of philanthro-capitalists.”

LF: Why do you believe people should consider entering the teaching profession “now” and why?

Sonia Nieto:

It’s hard to make the case that people, either those fresh out of college or career-changers, should join the teaching profession now. In her essay, Mary Ginley, a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year who spent 42 years in the classroom, wrote, “Why would anyone with any brains and imagination ever want to be a teacher?” After asking that poignant question, Mary described some of the profound changes she’s witnessed in education since she started teaching, most to the detriment of kids and teachers. She also wrote about some of the many conversations she had with the students she taught, conversations about the challenges they face, about their families, and about such disparate themes as the Civil Rights movement and whether Columbus was a hero or not. These conversations changed her students’ lives as well as hers. And at the end of her essay, she wrote, “But I have loved more of those minutes, hours, days, months, and years of teaching than not, laughed far more than I’ve cried, and gotten out of bed nearly every school day for 42 years looking forward to my day. Yes, of course, I’d do it again... Despite the misgivings I shared at the beginning of this essay, yes, I would absolutely still choose it. I am a teacher and can’t imagine being anything else.”

This is why now is precisely the time we need good people to enter the profession. We need talented, committed teachers, teachers who will stand up for the goals of equal and high quality education that our nation has always articulated as defining public education. These goals have never been fulfilled, of course. On the contrary, when public education began, it was based on a factory model that would produce obedient workers among the children of the masses, and managers and professionals among the children of the elite. It also was meant to assimilate immigrants and people of African, Mexican, and Asian descent and separate them from the White native-born, who were deemed more capable and deserving. In spite of this checkered history, one that’s still visible in some educational policies and practices, an equal and high quality education for every child regardless of social class, race, gender, or other differences is still a worthy goal. I believe that it’s teachers and other educators committed to these ideals that will help us work towards this goal, not politicians or corporations or even policymakers.

LF: Based on what you’ve learned from the book’s essays and elsewhere, what do you think public officials, districts and schools need to do in order to increase the odds that teachers will remain in the profession? And what actions do you think are in the power of teachers themselves to increase those same odds?

Sonia Nieto:

The evidence is clear that we’re losing too many of our teachers each year, and research suggests that it is the most talented among them who are leaving. Though they became teachers to make a difference in the lives of young people, they’re frustrated by being treated as little more than test-givers, and by the lack of respect they receive from administrators, policymakers, and the public at large. In many of the essays in Why We Teach Now, teachers make it clear that that’s not why they joined the profession. For example, Chuck Greanoff, a U.S. history and psychology high school teacher in Lakewood, Ohio, the high school from which both he and his parents graduated, wrote the following in his essay, “Sadly, a lot of very powerful, well-organized people have a different agenda for our schools, and it doesn’t include pet walls, concern for the emotional health of students, or even democratically elected school boards.” But he goes on to resist this context, concluding, “The greatest danger of a depressed spirit is a sense of learned helplessness, a passive acceptance of the ‘inevitable’ evisceration of public education.” And, in spite of the dehumanizing context in many schools today, that’s exactly the spirit that’s needed.

The first suggestion I’d make to increase the odds that teachers will remain in the profession is to include them in the conversation. Too often, they’ve been excluded from decisions affecting their work. We need only look at most commissions, research reports, white papers, and other examples of policy changes to see that teachers are invisible in most of these.

Second, I’d look at what other nations are doing to keep teachers committed, learning, and happy. Look at the example of Finland, where prospective teachers are chosen carefully, put through a demanding preparation and, once they begin teaching, treated with respect and given ample time to learn and plan, individually and with their colleagues. They face few high-stakes testing situations and are given ample freedom to design the curriculum, in this way reducing a great deal of the stress our U.S. teachers face every day. Granted, you can’t transplant policies wholesale from one nation to another with no regard for the many differences that exist between them. The United States is far more diverse and more complex than other nations, and what works in smaller and more homogeneous societies than ours might not work here. But there are some practices that make a great deal of sense and that should at least be tried.

Bottom line: I think the most important thing we can do is begin with respect and trust for teachers and for their professionalism, both sorely missing in many current policies for preparing, recruiting, and retaining them in the profession. Once that happens, I believe we will have come a long way in retaining more teachers in the profession.

LF: Thanks, Sonia!



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