In Their Own Words

Talks and articles by Alma Exley Scholars

Teaching Is An Extension Of Who You Are As A Person

Dr. Miguel Cardona
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.

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.


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.

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.

Dr. Miguel Cardona

‘WorldTeach’ Fulfills Dream of 2012 Alma Exley Scholar

When we honored Jessica Raugitinane in 2012, she said it was her dream to teach abroad. After two years of teaching in Washington, D.C., she realized her dream.

During the 2016-2017 school year, she taught English as a second language in Quito, Ecuador, through a volunteer program called WorldTeach.

“I have always wanted to teach abroad,” she told me, “especially in Latin America, to practice my Spanish and immerse myself in the culture. I wanted something longer than a study abroad experience to truly give me the time to build myself a community in my new home.”

From Young Children to Adults

After studying elementary education at UConn and twoyears of teaching fifth grade, it was quite a change of pace to teach adults in Ecuador.

“I absolutely loved teaching adults,” she said. “My students included high school, university, and adult students. Since they had to pay to attend the English classes, there was consistently a high level of enthusiasm and dedication since most students were financially and personally invested in their learning. It was refreshing to feel that every minute of teaching was sincerely appreciated by my students.

“The appreciation from my students was overwhelming. At the end of each teaching cycle, students expressed their gratitude with kind words, gifts, and a desire to spend quality time with their teacher. (We went out dancing to celebrate the end of the cycle!)

“That was another great aspect of teaching adults. I felt that I could get to know my students on a more personal level as a peer since we were in the same age range. Student engagement increased once they got to know me better as a person, getting to know my interests and life experiences.”

Immersed in Latino Culture

Spanish was one of her three majors at UConn, along with elementary education and English. And she minored in Latino Studies.

“Much of my interest in the Latino culture comes from my upbringing,” she said. “My mother is from El Salvador, and I visited El Salvador every two years throughout my youth. My desire to practice my Spanish also influenced my decision to study abroad in Seville, Spain, while at UConn.”

Ms. Raugitinane said that her studies at UConn prepared her to teach in a different culture.

“UConn opened my eyes to educational differences in the United States,” she said. “Teaching in Mansfield and student-teaching in Hartford were two very different experiences, due to socio-economic and cultural factors. This sparked my interest in broadening my perspective on education.

“With my master’s experience in London, I also saw how the U.S. and British education systems differ. Teaching in Ecuador was another opportunity to experience another country’s education system.

Teachers Highly Valued 

“Although teaching English to adults is outside of public K-12 education, it was interesting to see how teachers, especially English teachers, were valued in Ecuador. My name was never Ms. Raugitinane, but ‘teacher’ — a constant recognition of my profession that my students valued.”

Since returning from Ecuador last year, Ms. Raugitinane has been teaching fourth grade in a dual-language elementary school in her hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. And she has been applying lessons learned in Ecuador to her current classroom.

“The biggest take-away from teaching college students is to allow my students to get to know me as a person, no matter the age,” she said. “With elementary students, it’s easy to just be that adult who teaches, disciplines, and tries to maintain an adult-to-child relationship. However, I noticed that my fourth grade students responded well once they knew that my family was from El Salvador just like them or they knew that I enjoyed dancing and singing to the same songs they do.”

Connecting Through Language

Ms. Raugitinane’s knowledge of Spanish helped her in teaching English to Spanish-speakers.

“It was helpful when teaching something obscure from the English grammar and I could easily relate it to the grammar in Spanish,” she said. “This also increased student engagement. Since students viewed me as someone knowledgeable in both languages, they began to trust me even more.”

Dual-Language School

Now Ms. Raugitinane is teaching in a dual-language, K-5  school. Math and Science are taught in Spanish, and English and Social Studies are taught in English. But all state standardized testing is in English.

This past year, 75 percent of her students identified as Hispanic, while the other 25 percent identified as white, non-Hispanic. Most of the student population is Spanish-speaking.

Helping Immigrant Families

“Teaching in Ecuador helped me realize that I truly need to be in a school with a high Latino student population,” she said. “My interest in teaching began with my desire to help Latino immigrant families, and now I am finally in a school that has just that. It is still difficult being a new teacher with only four years of experience, but it’s where I need to be to continue growing in a place that I am passionate about. However, teaching in Ecuador has also opened my interest to teaching adults. We will see where my career path leads to next!”

-Woody Exley

Diversity Shapes Perceptions of Who Is and Who Can Be Successful

Editor’s note: Dr. Violet Jiménez Sims, whom we honored in 2008, was the keynote speaker at the reception at which Theodore Martinez was introduced as the 2018 Alma Exley Scholar. Over the past 10 years, Dr. Sims has taught in urban and suburban schools, has been an activist on behalf of culturally and linguistically diverse students, has been elected to the New Britain Board of Education, has become an administrator, and has earned her doctorate. At the same time, she and her husband, D’Andre, have been raising two daughters who are now 12 and 14. Following are excerpts from her remarks.

Children of color do not necessarily need teachers of color in order to learn. They need caring adults who know their subject matter well, who deliver student-centered instruction, and whose number one priority is genuinely every child in their classroom. However, if those caring adults are only represented by white people — mostly white women — that is a huge problem. Diversity benefits all children and their impressionable minds.

Dr. Violet Jiménez Sims

Ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity impacts perceptions of who is and who can be successful.  A diverse teacher force helps engage students and produces positive outcomes from grades, to graduation rates, to college attendance. But when the ratio of teachers of color and students of color is highly disproportionate, we risk low cultural capital leading high cultural diversity, and we reinforce and validate white, middle class values as dominant- systematically reflecting and producing inequities based on race, culture, and language.

The damage is deep, often subconscious, and influences all aspects of our lives. Just how skewed is the teacher-student diversity ratio? The U.S. Department of Education noted in a 2016 report that about 51 percent of public school students were white while 82 percent of teachers and 80 percent of principals were white.

So what can WE do to remedy this situation? While many factors influence diverse teacher recruitment and retention, simply put, the biggest barrier to diversity is systemic racism. Even with numerous national efforts to diversify the teaching profession — grants, programs, campaigns, etc. — we lose teachers of color at every point along the education pipeline.

Picture an inverted triangle: of those who enroll in post-secondary education, fewer enroll in education programs, even fewer than that complete their post-secondary education, and even when they enter the workforce, many teachers of color leave the profession in the first few years. That is especially likely for male teachers of color. The Center for American Progress noted in 2017 that teacher diversity numbers nationally have actually gotten worse since 2012.

However, we have to continue our efforts. We have to keep pushing even harder when the statistics look so grim. Every time we have new professionals of color enter the teaching workforce, we have to support them.

Our state is trying to help, too. A few days ago (Monday, May 7), Connecticut legislators unanimously enacted SB 455, An Act Concerning Minority Teacher Recruitment and Retention.

The bill changes teacher certification laws to make it easier, in certain areas, to obtain certification or cross endorsement. (Not by lowering the bar, but by adopting guidelines more similar to our neighboring states.)

It requires the State Department of Education to take some action to promote “minority” teacher recruitment and requires some district accountability in recruitment plans.

One of the guidelines that excites me most is the requirement related to teacher certification exams. Under this provision, should a candidate fail with a score within a certain threshold, they would be able to retake the test for free. Many of our potential teachers of color do not enter the workforce based on the gatekeeper exams and the cost-prohibitive nature of retaking them. How many of us know someone who couldn’t get their teaching certificate because they gave up after failing the math Praxis exam by three points?

So, this bill sounds promising. I’m thrilled that Connecticut legislators have taken action and pledged their commitment to increasing teacher diversity. I expect Gov. Dannel Malloy to sign the bill into law.

However, let’s stay vigilant. Unfortunately, we have not been able to legislate our way out of systemic racism. We have to continue to be advocates, demand that what is legislated is enforced, not shy away from difficult or uncomfortable conversations, and push for the next step in ensuring that our diversity efforts are successful, which to me means in-depth training of all existing teachers, administrators, and other education professionals.

We have to develop anti-racist institutions and leaders. That’s my charge to all teachers and administrators of any background who truly want to diversify. Do not just have people of color exist in white spaces; actually allow them a voice, value their culture, value diversity of thought, and promote integration rather than assimilation.

Keep up the good fight, and congratulations, Theodore!  You are already an excellent role model, and if things get tough, your Alma Exley clan has your back. I think I speak for all us in saying, holler if you need us!