Two Alma Exley Scholars are engaged in an initiative to bring more people of color into the educator workforce in Connecticut.
Dr. Violet Jiménez Sims, whom we honored in 2008, is managing director of academic programming for the Connecticut Teacher Residency Program (TRP), which provides a pathway for uncertified school personnel and others to gain teacher certification.
Theo Martinez, whom we honored in 2018, is an elementary teacher by day and teaches several courses in the TRP during evenings and in the summer. Currently, he is teaching a course called Teaching and Learning for Today’s Learner to the incoming cohort of teacher residents, over 90 percent of whom identify as people of color.
Dr. Sims meets up with Mr. Martinez in his classroom.
Candidates Have at Least a Bachelor’s Degree
“To qualify for the Teacher Residency Program,” Dr. Sims said, “candidates must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, though some have graduate degrees and professional credentials in other fields. Also, they should have experience working with marginalized populations as well as a commitment to diversity. Many residents have worked in schools as paraeducators, associate instructors, tutors, or teaching assistants.”
Candidates begin by taking courses during the summer, then spend the academic year in residency in a school under the guidance and supervision of a certified teacher. They take additional courses during the following summer. During their year-long residency, they receive a living wage and benefits. Afterwards, upon being hired as teachers, they receive mentoring support for three years.
In its four years of existence, the program has turned out 65 teachers for Connecticut elementary schools, and 90 percent are people of color.
Mr. Martinez brings to his TRP classroom five years of teaching in a diverse elementary magnet school in South Windsor run by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC). He also has taught in a state prison. He holds a bachelor’s degree from UConn and master’s degrees from the University of Hartford and the University of Southern New Hampshire, and he is working on a doctorate at the University of South Carolina (remotely).
“It’s an honor to reconnect with Violet and to work together to meet the program’s vision of disrupting current systems of inequity,” Mr. Martinez said. “Working with these prospective educators reminds me of what I love about being in the classroom. Year after year, TRP recruits unique candidates who are committed to addressing the teacher shortage while increasing the diversity of the teacher workforce in Connecticut.”
Reconnecting in the Classroom
Dr. Sims has known Mr. Martinez for years through their attendance at events sponsored by the Alma Exley Scholarship Program. Their paths crossed again this past year in her capacity as supervisor of the instructors in the Teacher Residency Program.
“Theo is a highly valued member of our faculty,” she said. “He brings to the classroom a wealth of experience in teaching in diverse classrooms, whether in public school or prison, and he shares our commitment to bringing greater diversity to the teaching profession in Connecticut. We are so fortunate to have Theo as an instructor who is also a role model and a positive example of representation and impact in the teaching profession.”
All supporters of the Alma Exley Scholarship Program may find it gratifying that two outstanding members of our scholarship family are working to fulfill Alma’s vision of an education profession that looks like America.
Like many states, Connecticut is grappling with a shortage of teachers in general and teachers of color in particular.
But help is on the way.
Among a variety of initiatives supported by the state Department of Education is a program called Educators Rising. This program starts early by encouraging high school students to aspire to become teachers.
The story of Heather Miano, a teacher in New Britain, demonstrates how investing in the high school students of today can produce the teachers of tomorrow.
As a student at New Britain High School, Ms. Miano took courses and volunteered in local schools in a program that was a precursor to Educators Rising. She attended Central Connecticut State University and subsequently became an elementary teacher in her hometown of New Britain.
After beginning her career as an elementary school teacher, Ms. Miano transitioned to New Britain High School, where she teaches family and consumer sciences including child development classes. She also runs a preschool lab alongside the EdRising program.
Ms. Miano works closely with Eileen Marquez, who leads the EdRising program at the high school. They are proud that 14 EdRising students who graduated this year from New Britain High School are planning to enroll in teacher-preparation programs in college. This is up from 11 last year.
“The work within the program afforded me the opportunity to get real hands-on experience with children,” Ms. Miano said. “I learned about education from the ground up at a young age, and this validated my feelings of wanting to be a teacher. I was able to engage in lesson planning, field experiences, and networking with teachers and parents. This deepened my knowledge about the education profession.
“Looking back, I would say the program truly shaped and guided my trajectory into becoming an educator for the city that raised me,” she said.
Nearly 500 Potential Future Teachers
The program that gave Heather her start became Educators Rising three years ago. Now, nearly 500 students are enrolled in EdRising programs in high schools in Ansonia, Bristol, Hartford, Danbury, East Hartford, Farmington, Hamden, Manchester, Naugatuck, New Haven, New London, Norwich, Groton, Stamford, Torrington, Waterbury, and Windsor, as well as New Britain.
Some 83 percent of those enrolled are students of color. This could have an impact on Connecticut’s drive to increase the diversity of its educator workforce. Educators of color have surpassed 11 percent of the total workforce in recent years, and efforts are ongoing to achieve more progress.
Local Students Win Top Honors at National EdRising Conference
Twenty-six EdRising students from New Britain, New Haven, and Waterbury were among 3,000 students who attended the National Educators Rising Conference in Orlando in late June. Four of the New Britain High School students placed in the top five in the nation in their respective competitions.
Milon Angelo, who graduated from NBHS in June, placed first overall in a competition in Lesson Planning and Delivery in a CTE (Career and Technical Education) Classroom, focusing on student engagement. He plans to attend Central Connecticut State University in the fall, majoring in Secondary Education with a concentration in English.
Said Ms. Marquez, “We need more Black, male teachers, and Milon is a Black male who is passionate about fostering relationships with his future students and creating a culturally affirming classroom. We are so proud of him and all our students and their efforts at the conference.”
EdRising students at Central Connecticut State University
Don’t Wait, Get Involved
What advice would Ms. Miano give to high school students who might be considering enrolling in the EdRising program?
“Get Involved. Don’t wait it out because you are unsure,” she said. “I cannot stress it enough. I experienced quite a few hardships in my early high school years. If I hadn’t become so involved in the education pathway in high school, I don’t think I would have had nearly as many of the opportunities I’ve had over the years.
“I have seen students enter our program a bit unsure of whether to go into education. Then, all of a sudden, they reach a moment of epiphany and realize they have found their calling. They can truly see themselves entering this profession.”
Ms. Miano has completed her seventh year of teaching while earning a master’s from the University of Saint Joseph.
From a Dream to a Passion
“I was able to turn a dream into a passion,” she said. “Schooling always came relatively easy for me. However, the education pathway challenged me in a way I didn’t know I needed. By getting involved, I was challenged beyond the limits I originally set for myself and soon found that I was able to achieve so much more. The EdRising program is a monumental program that can truly model what good teaching is all about.
“It amazes me how much I’ve accomplished in seven years, and I know that I have so much more to offer as I continue to learn and grow. I am proud that I have been able to give back to the community and district that helped raise me.”
The two newest Alma Exley Scholars offered a master class in the importance and impact of teachers of color when they were introduced at a virtual event recently.
Alexus Lee, a master’s degree student at the University of Bridgeport, and Soribel Torres-Jiménez, a senior at UConn, were honored at the 27th annual celebration of the Alma Exley Scholarship Program, whose mission is to increase diversity in the educator workforce. More than 40 educators and supporters of the program attended the celebration held via Zoom.
Ms. Lee and Ms. Torres-Jiménez thanked the program for their scholarships and shared insights into the issue of educator diversity based on their own experiences as students and aspiring teachers.
Positive Role Models
Ms. Lee said, in part:
“When I started college, I became a camp counselor at LEAP (Leadership Education and Athletics Partnership), where I helped educate predominantly Black children. This was one of the greatest experiences for me because, for the first time ever, I was around educators who looked like me. They spoke like me and dressed like me. But most important, they resembled the kids.
“So many of these children found positive role models to look up to. Many of them found father and older brother figures to push them to become their best selves. This is extremely important for all students, but especially the minority kids because they may not have these role models at home. I truly believe that students develop a stronger connection and level of trust when they genuinely believe the teacher can understand them because of shared experiences.
The Only Black Teacher
“This school year, I began interning in a school that is predominantly white. I have counted six Black students across all five grades, and there are no Black teachers. Being the only black teacher in the beginning of the school year was hard. When I changed my hair from long extensions to my Afro for the first time, I received comments from the students such as, ‘Why did you cut your hair? It looked better before.’ And, ‘Your hair isn’t supposed to look like that. It should be straight like mine.’
“I’ll admit, these questions and comments were hurtful because I’d never experienced something like this before. And the teachers were just as confused. At first, I felt as though I did not belong in this community. I wanted so badly to go back to LEAP where everyone looked like me.
Explaining the Afro
“Then one moment changed my entire view. This was when I first wore my Afro at my internship class. One of the teachers asked me why I choose to wear my hair like this so often. I was explaining to him that this is how my hair naturally grows, just as his grows straight. Then I looked up and realized there were four other teachers around me eagerly waiting for my response as well.
“At this moment, I realized how important it is to have Black teachers. These students and educators have so many questions about Black people because they have not been around us. They’re not used to us.
“Now, after eight months of teaching here, it’s less common for teachers or students to ask why I ‘cut my hair’ when I go from extensions to my Afro. Most times, they don’t comment at all because they’ve grown more used to me. Students feel comfortable asking me about my skin and my hair now.
“This extends to the Black students in the school as well. Recently, one of them eagerly ran up to me in the hallway. He had the biggest smile and said, ‘Hey! Your hair looks like mine!’ We continued talking because he wanted to know more about how he can take care of it like I do.
Impact on White Students
“The white students in my internship are asking questions because they are genuinely curious, and I am the only one who can teach them about people who look different from them. I can help them understand more about the world they live in. As for the six Black students, they can feel more comfortable in their skin and with their kinky hair knowing that there is a teacher in the building who will always stand up for them.
“In conclusion, Black teachers are so important…in any school. It is important that young Black students see older Black people with good jobs, but it’s also important to expose white students to diversity. It is rare for someone to be around only people who look like them. By answering the children’s questions now, they will be more comfortable around those who look different from them in the future. And that’s why I think it’s so important to have Black teachers in the classroom.”
More Educators of Color Are Needed
Ms. Torres-Jiménez said, in part:
“Being a future teacher of color is hard, but worth it. Our education system is doing all students a disservice when there is no representation by educators of color in the education system itself.
“I was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut, which is a very diverse community. However, I recall having only three teachers of color from elementary school through high school. Only two of those teachers spoke Spanish.
“My first teacher of color was in third grade, and I had the privilege of having her in fifth grade too. She contributed to the beginning of my passion to become a teacher, specifically for English language learners in urban settings. I was a first-generation college student, and my parents were very unfamiliar with the American school system. They are immigrants from the Dominican Republic and valued the education and opportunities the United States offered my siblings and me.
“From parent-teacher conferences to science fairs, there was a language barrier which made it difficult for my parents to understand my successes and where I needed more support in school. There is this negative perspective targeted toward minority parents that they ‘do not care’ about their child’s progress and do not find the need to be involved in their studies. In reality, there are reasons why many parents cannot attend school events because of rigorous work schedules, divorced families, limited transportation, language barriers, etc.
“My first teacher of color understood that my family was not any less interested than other families that seemed more involved. She was able to communicate with my parents in Spanish, send home translated information, and even include more cultural awareness in the classroom.
“I no longer felt like an outsider or as if my parents weren’t enough. This teacher allowed me to embrace my identities and she would also share her relatable anecdotes with the class to normalize more than one culture in the classroom.”
Celebrating All Student Backgrounds
“As an educator, you must be able to create environments that support and celebrate all student backgrounds. The classroom is a space that does not highlight one’s deficits; instead, it caters to the student’s strengths. I want to be a future educator that can step in and make all families and cultures feel involved in their child’s education.
“These positions of power need people of color to bring in socially just practices, representation, equity, and love. It’s also important for white students to have teachers of color. In order to dismantle systemic racism and injustices, it’s important for white students to see people of color holding many leadership positions.”