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.
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.”
The Alma Exley Scholarship family has followed Miguel Cardona’s career over the years with admiration and a measure of pride.
Since we honored him in 1998 as a student at Central Connecticut State University, he has climbed to the heights of educational leadership as Connecticut Commissioner of Education and U.S. Secretary of Education.
I was delighted to connect with Dr. Cardona recently in the nation’s capital, where he addressed the National Association of State Boards of Education.
He began his remarks by acknowledging the Alma Exley Scholarship Program which, he said, gave him a scholarship at the age of 21 and boosted his confidence as he was about to begin his career. How gracious of him to highlight the impact of our scholarship with yours truly in the audience.
Everyone who supports our scholarship program can feel good about helping to launch the remarkable career of Miguel Cardona–and so many other outstanding educators.
Woody Exley with Secretary Cardona at conference
Surviving COVID Through Collaboration
Speaking to board members from 20 states and territories, Dr. Cardona reflected on how the education community survived the COVID pandemic not just because of funding, but also through collaboration among educators, health professionals, labor, and government.
“In so many ways,” he said, “state boards of education have been the ones driving this collaboration. You’ve been the ones reminding us that we need to come together for our children. You’ve been the ones driving the bold policies that can transform a broken status quo in education.
“We’ve arrived at a crossroads,” he said. “We could be at the dawn of an educational renaissance in America – or in the last year of an educational ‘flash in the pan.’”
Dr. Cardona said the Biden Administration has delivered historic investments, from the $130 billion American Rescue Plan to the $2 billion investment in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to build safer, healthier schools.
“And red and blue states alike have seized this funding to raise the bar for students,” he said.
Raising the Bar
“You’re raising the bar for academic excellence . . . Like in Tennessee, which is accelerating recovery with a $170 million investment in high-quality summer learning programs and math and reading tutors, because we know extended learning time works.
“You’re raising the bar for learning conditions. . . Like in Oklahoma, which is using ARP funding to hire more counselors, mental health providers, and recreational therapists across 181 school districts.
“And you’re raising the bar for pathways to global competitiveness. . . like in Washington state, which has doubled the number of districts offering dual-language programs, giving more students the competitive advantage of multilingualism.
“You’ve raised the bar for progress in education. Now, my charge to you is: help us build the system it will take to sustain that progress, to make sure it outlasts all of us.”
Systems Superior to Superheroes
The Secretary said that, in education, we rely too much on superheroes to drive change, whether it’s a Wonder Woman principal, using a lasso to bring educators and families together, or a Spiderman superintendent untangling a web of bureaucracy to free up dollars for summer programs, or a Hulk on the state board, strong-arming business relationships to ensure students in technical schools learn in-demand skills.
“A superhero can make a big impact, but none of us will be in these jobs forever,” he said. “What happens after we’re gone? That’s why I always say, transformational change will rely on systems, not superheroes.
“We know that ARP (American Rescue Plan) funding won’t be around forever. That’s why President Biden’s new budget is about sustaining your progress for years to come
Proposing Budget Increase
“When I appear before Congress, I will be fighting for you, for a budget increase of 14 percent so that your states have the support you need to keep doing their jobs.
“The budget includes $3 billion to boldly address the educator shortage. It includes $18.2 billion for students with disabilities and another $2.2 billion for Title I schools on top of the nearly $2 billion increase we’ve already secured.
“And it includes major new commitments to finally make universal pre-K and free community college a reality in this country.
“We can’t shrink our aspirations or slow down our recovery efforts. Because how we act now won’t just determine the appetite for education funding for years to come. It’ll determine whether the transformational change you’ve started in your states is sustainable. Whether it’s built on systems that last, instead of superheroes who won’t.
“Today, I ask you to focus on building systems and mechanisms for intentional collaboration that will outlast your time in this role.”
Dr. Cardona told the story of someone who received a house plant with large leaves growing from three separate stalks. Over time, as the weight of the leaves grew, each of the stalks drooped toward the floor. They could not stand upright without being propped up.
Later, the owner of the house plant saw a plant exactly like it in a waiting room. But this one stood fully upright. No sticks, no wires, no supports.
This plant also had three stalks, but the stalks had been braided together into one stronger stalk. Each stalk alone could not stand tall. It needed to be braided with others.
“That is a metaphor for where we are in education,” he said. “What got us through COVID was not just the funding, but also what we did with it by braiding our strengths together.
“It’s time to ask yourselves: Are the seeds of progress you’ve planted going to grow into stems that bend and break? Will division and partisanship separate our plant stalks?
“Or will those plant stalks flourish because they’re braided together, in partnership with colleges and universities, labor and workforce partners, community organizations, and health care?
Collaboration on Behalf of Students
“Now is the time to braid our efforts with health providers to build Tier 1 mental health supports for students.
“Now is the time to braid our efforts with labor to reimagine professional development and leadership opportunities that retain great educators… And bring pre-service teachers into the classroom with better pay.
“Now is the time to braid our efforts with colleges and workforce partners to create a sense of mutual accountability on dual enrollment and career pathways… Because there’s a tsunami of great, well-paying jobs coming–and we have to be ready.
“Now is the time to braid our efforts with the science on early childhood education and effective bilingual education and push harder than ever to strengthen systems and increase oportunidades.
“Ya es tiempo de aprender otro idioma!
Controlling the Narrative
“And now is the time to braid our voices in support of each other, so we can stand taller, speak louder, and unapologetically control the narrative on public education, and the cost of continued disinvestment.
“We are in this together! Whatever the mechanism, I hope you get creative about setting up something that can outlast you, and benefit students for years to come.
“We’re gathered here at a critical time… What we do together could mean the difference between renaissance and restoration – between transforming our education system for good or going back to a broken status quo that failed our students, and our nation.
“Our country’s success is dependent on our collective will to resist complacency and embrace bold action.
“This is not an easy task, and some of us may even put our roles on the board of education in peril, but I’m challenging you act on your love of students and educators and lead like you have never led before.
“As the late great Congressman John Lewis said in his passion to create good trouble, ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’
Delivering for Students
“We are the ones who have to deliver for our students. We are the ones who have to raise the bar. And we are the ones who have to braid our strengths together.
“Let’s not just prop up a wilting plant and call it a day. Let’s reimagine our education system as that braided plant: able to stand stronger for longer, with every stalk woven together as one. Seeing our state boards of education come together like this today, I’ve never been more confident that we can pull it off. So let’s get to work.”