In Their Own Words

Talks and articles by Alma Exley Scholars

Teaching At The Wrong End of The School-To-Prison Pipeline

Theodore Martinez, whom we honored in 2018, is an adjunct professor at Asnuntuck Community College, teaching psychology at a state prison. As guest speaker at the reception honoring Isabella “Ivy” Horan on May 9, 2019, he presented the following reflections his experience and the impact of teachers of color.

It’s an honor for me to be here tonight and to pass the torch to tonight’s recipient. Congratulations, Isabella, on this honor, and welcome to the Alma Exley family.

I must admit, I am very impressed in hearing of all of Isabella’s accomplishments. Addressing educational equity is not an easy feat, but incredibly important. As teachers of color, it often falls on us to be the voice of experience for our students. I’m happy to learn she has already found her voice and is already advocating for change.

Theodore Martinez

This year, I began working as an adjunct at Asnuntuck Community College, teaching an Introduction to Psychology course. I mention this because the students I work with are in a situation many of us are trying to prevent. These students have found themselves on the wrong end of the fabled school-to-prison pipeline. Asnuntuck has partnered with four of the correctional institutions in Connecticut to offer college courses, leading to degrees, for students housed in these facilities in an effort to reduce recidivism. This program is under the Second-Chance Pell Program, a national initiative, and I’m proud to say Asnuntuck is one of the largest programs in the country.

Every Monday night, I sit in classroom with 15 students. Of those 15 students, 12 are minorities. This is a trend that many of my colleagues experience. And while the thought of so many minority students pursuing a college degree fills me with pride, their overrepresentation in this particular class, in this particular setting troubles me.

These students are hardworking and dedicated. They’re committed to their success, and on multiple times we’ve reflected on their actions leading to their incarceration. Each time we do, at least one acknowledges if he had known better, he would do better. If he had someone who rooted for him, he might not have ended up here.

When I leave the prison on Monday night, and enter my classroom of third graders on Tuesday morning, I’m hit with the same thought: What can I do to make sure these students don’t end up in my Monday night class? How can I help them?

Like the adults I teach, my classroom of third graders consists primarily of minority students. Of the five students who receive special education support, three are minorities. All of the behavior plans that have been established are for minority students.

This is seen nationally. Research tells us there is an overrepresentation of minority students in special education. We know there’s a problem. The question that evades so many of us is “How do we fix it?”

The first step is why we’re all here. The same research that tells us there’s a problem also tells us that we desperately need more teachers of color. Students of color perform better when they see someone who looks like them. They achieve more when they have someone who speaks like them; who understands them. I’m sure of my fellow recipients currently working in the field can share their own personal stories regarding the truth in this statement. 

I always think of one particular student. This student had been identified as a “problem” child by my colleagues and as such was written off by many of them. They labeled him as disrespectful, disruptive and argumentative. Over time, I was able to build a relationship with him. He confided in me, telling me that because we looked alike, he felt better. He began sharing a home-life I couldn’t relate to. This student was disruptive in class because he hated silence. He lived in a rough part of Hartford and had been home alone when someone broke into the house. Silence unsettled him. He was acting out because he didn’t have strategies to manage. Because I stopped and asked why, we were able to work together and help him succeed.

Every day a student like him enters your classroom carrying something unseen. And every day it falls on their teacher to be their one constant. The job is tiring. You build these powerful relationships with students and worry about them at night. Stress comes from trying to plan the perfect lesson that integrates cultural understanding, supports their social/emotional growth and development, and still hits the academic standards.

Teachers are required to wear many hats: educator, surrogate parent, therapist, guide, nurse. Teaching is a lot. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

Nothing matches the feeling you get from working with students, pushing them to continually grow in their learning. Seeing their faces glow when experiencing something new is priceless. Establishing those bonds, working to be that one teacher a student remembers, is fulfilling. At the end of the day, a student won’t remember what you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Isabella, congratulations on becoming the 2019 recipient. Welcome to the Alma Exley scholarship family, and welcome to the fight to change education for the better.

Celebrating Closing of One Chapter and Opening of Another

Editor’s note: Theodore Martinez, whom we honored in 2018, posted the following  on Facebook, reflecting on his academic career as he is about to begin his career as a teacher.

So I’m taking a moment and writing a long post because I’m proud of myself and don’t celebrate myself, or my accomplishments often.

Today, I attended my final class of this degree program. I am wrapping up my second master’s degree and about to graduate with a 4.0. Four years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined myself in this position. I struggled during my undergrad, and arguably during my first master’s. The cards have been stacked against my learning for a very long time.

I am a minority. I am the child of a single parent. I am of a lower socioeconomic status. Really, the only thing I’ve got going for me is the fact that I’m a male. But I was raised by an incredibly wise woman who instilled this work ethic that got me here. Growing up, I was told I had to be twice as good. Twice as good to get half the recognition, half the credit, half the praise.

This year, in talking with adults, I’ve been praised for my accomplishments, but those praises have been met with qualifiers. “You’re so well educated, for a Hispanic.” “You’ve got such a great work ethic for a Hispanic.”

Let’s be clear.

I am well educated. For anyone, regardless of race. I have a strong work ethic, yes, and maybe it’s because of my race, but that just means I’ve found a way to play the game to get where I’m at. I found a way to get here, to be the only minority in my cohort.

I am a child of redlining. I am a child who was moved to a suburb of Hartford because the school system is stacked in a way that benefits white, suburban towns. I am an adult who will continue to do everything I can to make it better for all children.

Now that I’m truly about to begin my career in education, it’s time for me to sit down, get to work, and reflect on where I can make the biggest impact. Will I go back for another degree? Let’s be honest, we know I can’t stay out of school for that long. Just give me time.

For now though…I’m proud of myself for doing the unexpected and getting here.


Teaching Is An Extension Of Who You Are As A Person

Editor’s note: Teach Connecticut posted the following article by Dr. Miguel Cardona on its website as part of its Hispanic Heritage Month campaign to honor inspiring educators. The Alma Exley Scholarship Program honored Dr. Cardona in 1998 when he was a student at Central Connecticut State University.
Miguel Cardona

By Miguel Cardona, Ed.D.

Like many first generation Latinos whose parents came from another country, I had to learn how to code-switch early. At first it was with language, but it soon became necessary for other nuances of the cultures in which I was immersed.

Navigating the dominant cultural norms in dress, idiomatic expressions and music, among other things, I was always reminded to stay proud and celebrate my Puerto Rican roots.

So while my playlists growing up included popular American music, there was always Felipe Rodriguez, Los Condes, Eddie Santiago and, of course, Marc Anthony.

Despite being the only Latino in many of my college preparation high school classes and throughout my college courses, my ability to develop dual consciousness while staying true to who I am only helped me build confidence. It’s very difficult to explain that process — Lejuan James does it best! 

I remember when I got the call from the superintendent asking me to teach fourth grade in my hometown of Meriden, CT, a diverse community that my parents came to call home as young children. What a life-changing experience to teach in your own community!

Living Your Life’s Purpose in the Profession

I remember thinking then that teaching is not a job. It is an extension of you as a person.

If you keep that mindset, you can live out your life’s purpose every day in the profession.

After several years of teaching, I was fortunate to receive a master’s fellowship in Bilingual Bicultural Education at the University of Connecticut. There I met some mentors and models in education who motivated me to continue my passion for learning and teaching in ways that students enjoy.

After graduating, I made the choice not to teach in Bilingual Education, simply because I felt non-Bilingual Education students also need to see Latinos in professional capacities.

Devoted To Evolving the Thinking of the Next Generation

Like many, I remember what it felt like to be on the wrong side of a stereotype, and I felt it was my purpose in education to evolve the thinking of the next generation. Equity became a foundation for my passion around this time.

Miguel Cardona standing in front of the Board of Education building

Fast forward a bit, I get my administrative degree to become Connecticut’s youngest principal in 2003. The expectations kept mounting, but so did my passion for learning, growing and serving my purpose to teach and lead.

A Culture of Acceptance

Serving as a building principal allowed me to create a culture of acceptance, high achievement and community. Some of my fondest memories as an educator was when I was principal.

In 2012, I represented Connecticut in Washington, DC, as Connecticut’s National Distinguished Principal. It was around that time that I was finishing up my doctorate degree. I chose my dissertation topic, Sharpening the Focus of Political Will to Address Achievement Disparities, because that continued to be a passion of mine. Walking on the stage at the commencement ceremony and receiving my doctorate degree with a whole section of family and supporters in the stands was a moment I will never forget.

While the sacrifice of earning my degree seemed daunting, it was dwarfed by the sacrifice and commitment my grandparents and parents made: leaving a beautiful island to become strangers in a new land, living in the housing projects, and starting from the bottom. They earned my degree with me.

Miguel Cardona, with his parents, Sarah and Hector Cardona

Soon after I graduated, I was asked by the Connecticut Speaker of the House of Representatives to serve as the Co-Chairperson of the Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force in the capital city of Hartford. I remember sitting with the Lieutenant Governor, Commissioner of Education and various State Senators and Representatives, chuckling to myself because those same skills of code and culture switching I did as a young kid were serving me well.

Negotiating public policy on behalf of thousands of Connecticut students who reminded me of my parents when they emigrated from Puerto Rico made my experience worthwhile. It was during this time that I felt my job as Principal and Task Force Co-Chair was truly serving my purpose in life. I realized the importance of carrying that purpose on my sleeve.

Three Things To Remember

After 10 years as Principal, I moved to Central Office and now serve as the Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning in the Meriden Public School System, the same school system my parents and I went through, and the one that my children now attend.

Lead by example

I am fortunate to be in Meriden, my hometown, and my passion for serving this community is part of the reason I choose to stay. Latinos are very familial. This community has embraced me as family, and I am committed to making its continuous improvement my life’s work.

Teaching is an extension of your purpose. Be prepared to defend your beliefs, challenge conventions and be a part of the change you want to see.

As Assistant Superintendent and adjunct professor of educational leadership at University of Connecticut, I combine my two passions: leading a diverse district and teaching tomorrow’s leaders.

Remember the three things I learned on my journey:

  1. Everyone benefits from seeing Latinos in a professional position.
  2. You must find and wear your purpose on your sleeve.
  3. Most importantly, you must remember that teaching is not a job, but an extension of your life’s purpose. Be the change you wish to see.

Find Your Life’s Purpose

If you’re ready to become a teacher—or if you know someone who would be a great fit for the profession—let them know about TEACH Connecticut, and encourage them to create a free career roadmap. It’s the easiest way to determine your fit for teaching and get actionable next steps for starting your career.

Miguel A. Cardona is an Assistant Superintendent and adjunct professor of educational leadership at University of Connecticut.