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3 Latina teachers in their toughest moments face complex cultural challenges

Teresa Sosa, Associate Professor of Education, discusses the complex cultural challenges facing new teachers as she shares the stories of 3 Latina teachers in their toughest moments.

Gun control. Hallway decorations. Hairstyles.

Those aren’t the things I expected to be stumbling blocks for three Latina educators that I helped prepare to become schoolteachers in recent years. But each situation came up in their classroom or in the course of their jobs at various elementary and middle schools in the state of Indiana, where I teach. Their situations are indicative of a time in our society when we are called to more closely pay attention to issues of racism and social justice.

I’m tracking these former students – along with three others – as part of a study I am doing on the first-year experiences of Latina teachers. As an educator who helps prepare future school teachers, I believe these experiences help shine light on some of the expectations that students, parents and school administrators might sometimes have of classroom teachers. Conversely, my research also shows some of the culturally dicey situations that schoolteachers may have to navigate once they get a classroom of their own.

teachers, latina teacher, students

Photo by Alena Darmel from Pexels

On a broader level, my research shows the complex interactions that can take place within schools with student bodies that are becoming increasingly diverse.

With that in mind, here are three examples based on the experiences of three former students of mine in their first year of teaching. All names in the following examples are pseudonyms.

Gun control

When Ms. Raymond, a sixth grade social studies teacher, discussed the Second Amendment, Mary, a white female student, expressed her view that Democrats wanted to take everyone’s guns away and that people needed guns in their home for protection.

Ms. Raymond clarified that some people want to see laws passed that make guns less accessible. That same day, Mary’s parents reached out to Ms. Raymond and insisted she meet with them in person. After Ms. Raymond refused to meet in person due to COVID-19 restrictions and her own sense of safety, the parents refused to meet via Zoom or discuss it over the telephone and instead explained their concerns via a messaging app the school uses for teachers and parents to communicate.

Mary’s parents claimed in their messages to Ms. Raymond that Mary felt Ms. Raymond is biased against her opinions and prevents her from stating them by not calling on her. They said Ms. Raymond should allow all students to speak their opinions, even if she doesn’t agree with them, which Ms. Raymond believes she does. They also insisted Ms. Raymond not speak to their child individually because she feels “threatened” by Ms. Raymond. They asked that the homeroom teacher, a white male teacher, be present during any further one-on-one interactions with Mary. The principal agreed that the student should be accommodated in order to make her feel more comfortable.

Ms. Raymond believes this is a move to undermine her position as a teacher. It also serves to uphold the stereotype of Latinas as being loud, hot-tempered and volatile, as indicated in the suggestion that she made the student feel “threatened.”

Hallway decorations

Ms. Sanchez teaches in a school district where the dual language program is prominently featured on the district’s website. And with good reason. The teachers in this program have gone above and beyond to make the students feel welcomed and part of the school community.

Behind the scenes, however, the principal told the teachers in the program – including Ms. Sanchez – that they couldn’t do certain activities, such as decorating the school hallways with student work, unless they involved the other teachers in the same grade level but who are not part of the program. This happened after those teachers – veteran white teachers – complained that they weren’t being invited to participate in dual language program activities. As a practical matter, Ms. Sanchez says this means the dual language program has to involve white teachers who know neither the students nor the program.

latina teachers,

Photo by Alena Darmel from Pexels

The irony of the situation, according to Ms. Sanchez, is that the non-Spanish-speaking teachers were always welcome to participate in the dual language program activities – they just didn’t want to stay after school to do it.

In effect, while the district promotes the dual language program on its website to create an image of diversity and inclusion, the dual language program in Ms. Sanchez’s school has little autonomy, and she feels it is subjected to white surveillance and control.

Hairstyles

During a sixth grade science lesson that was fully online due to the pandemic, several Black girls began to comment on the hair of a white student, Amy, because her hair was braided in small cornrows with beads, seemingly in emulation of a hairstyle typically worn by Black girls.

“Ms. Gonzales, do you think Amy is culturally appropriating right now?” one Black female student asked.

Rather than address the matter on the spot, Ms. Gonzales told her students that these types of conversations are important and that they would address it two days later.

teachers, student, online learning

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

That day, Ms. Gonzales spoke with her team and the principal. Her team concluded that this is a conversation that obviously matters to their Black female students and that waiting two days to talk to them was too long. The principal agreed, adding that racial equality is a key part of their school and the only way to show students this is by hearing their voices.

She also spoke with Amy, the white student who explained that she just loved her friend’s braids and wanted to style her hair the same way, so she had her aunt do her hair. After watching a couple of videos and reading a book with Ms. Gonzales about Black hair, Amy came to realize how it could offend some of her Black peers. Ms. Gonzales also spoke with Amy’s mother, who was supportive and understood why Black students were offended.

Before getting into the full conversation of cultural appropriation, the class discussed what it meant to “pull people in” kindly to these kinds of conversations and not singling people out. Ms. Gonzales also discussed a bit of how Black women’s hair has been discriminated against, historically as well as in contemporary times.

She also brought in opinions from Black friends and colleagues on how they feel about white people wearing Black hairstyles, as well as Tik Tok videos of persons of color explaining why it’s cultural appropriation or not.

At the end of the meeting, which her mother also attended, Amy decided to make a statement which in part said, “I understand that I had my hair done and it offended some of my peers of color. I love the Black culture and I wanted to respect it. I didn’t know I would be offending the Black culture, and I thought I would be called out in a positive way and not a negative way.”

Ms. Gonzales said she received a lot of backlash from co-workers outside of her team who told her that having such conversations is wrong. Ms. Gonzales defends her actions, saying she sees it as important to provide a space where all students can voice their feelings and learn about issues such as cultural appropriation.

As these three accounts indicate, teachers in their first year of teaching must navigate various concerns – and sometimes concerns that conflict – among parents, students and administrators. Knowing this in advance can help teachers better prepare for the various cultural dilemmas they are likely to face in today’s classroom and beyond.The Conversation

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Written by Teresa Sosa, Associate Professor of Education, IUPUI

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How care for her community lead Yolanda Evgeniou to launch a successful business

Yolanda Evgeniou is the owner of Paraprofessional Health Careers, and provides curriculum, course materials, and is the instructor for non-credit programs for individuals striving to enter Allied Health fields. For over 20 years she has worked as an educator in her community, helping individuals achieve their career goals and dreams. 

Paraprofessional Health, educator

Yolanda Evgeniou, Paraprofessional Health educator and author. (Photo courtesy Yolanda Evgeniou)

How care for her community lead to launching a successful business

Yolanda began her business in 1999 when she saw that there was a need for affordable education and training in the Paraprofessional Health field. 

“I decided to start certificate programs because many people that I had come to meet could not afford college and were struggling to pay bills or even provide food for their families,” says Yolanda. “I knew that training them in ‘Medical Tech’ programs would lead them to employment and certification costs less money and provides a greater return on investment!” 

Born in Newark, New Jersey to a humble family, Yolanda knew what it was like to struggle. She worked not one, not two, but three jobs just to start her business. She did not have the advantages of money starting out, but she worked hard to make her dreams a reality because she wanted to help others.

On her career journey, Yolanda has faced many obstacles as well. From humble beginnings and struggling to access capital to facing racism and discrimination. Many companies also stole her ideas, profiting off her, and this was a very painful experience. But through it all, Yolanda never gave up. Her intentions and desire to help others were always selfless and rooted in her deep love and care for her community. 

Yolanda has a big heart. As an educator and community member she understands the struggles people face and always strives to help wherever she can.  

Owner of Paraprofessional Health Careers, Yolanda provides curriculum, course materials, and on-site training for certificate programs. (Photo courtesy Yolanda Evgeniou)

“I truly care about the community,” she says. “Many times I would train students for free and help place them in doctor’s offices or hospitals. I am simply a humble lady that understands struggles in communities.” 

Now, after over 20 years, Yolanda’s curriculum has helped countless individuals start their careers in the Paraprofessional Health field. The curriculum awards certificates in the areas of: Medical Assistant, Patient Care Technician, Phlebotomy Technician, and Medical Administration. 

Paraprofessional Health Careers also provides on-site training and job placement and is partnered with the American Medical Certification Association (AMCA).

“Believe you have the right to become anything!”

In addition to her work as a healthcare professional and educator, Yolanda also writes children’s books in her spare time. She enjoys telling fun, educational stories with a spark of magic! 

Her first book, Gavin and The Moon, explores the topic of Cultural Diversity for children. As someone who has faced racism and discrimination, Yolanda knows just how painful it can be. The story teaches children universal acceptance of each other’s race, religion, and cultures by showing how the Moon’s peaceful glow shines the same to all of us across the world. To the Moon we are all equal. 

You might be interested: Latina activist and educator Maria Santiago-Valentin advocates for classroom inclusion

This lesson is one that Yolanda carries with her everyday.  

Yolanda’s latest book, Liam Takes Grandma to Space.

She believes reading to children about different cultures, races, and even gender identities can open their minds and hearts, teaching them to be kind, accepting, and empathetic people. 

Yolanda’s latest book, Liam Takes Grandma to Space, follows the exciting adventure of Liam and his grandma as they float across space and discover the eight planets that orbit around the sun. This educational story teaches children about the wonders of outer-space in a fun, colorful tale.

In all her endeavors, Yolanda strives to educate and guide young minds on their journeys through life, whether that be career training for future healthcare professionals or guiding young children across the globe and through the stars with imaginative stories. As a true educator, her goal is to help her students achieve their dreams and guide them toward their goals. 

“My favorite quote by Martin Luther King Jr. is: Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education,” she says. “Believe that you have the right to become anything or anyone! And do not allow racism to stop you from becoming successful. Do not allow it to destroy your inner soul and peace of mind!”

fighting for education

Latina activist and educator Maria Santiago-Valentin advocates for classroom inclusion

Maria Santiago-Valentin is a fierce activist and educator who has used her platform to advocate for classroom inclusion and the environment. A passionate, energetic and creative educator with over twenty-five years of experience in her field, she has taught in Puerto Rico, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and has been recognized for her achievements nationally and internationally. 

Lifelong learning

“Education is a crucial foundation for our youth. Now more than ever we need quality education to help younger generations pave the way toward better futures for our society,” said Maria Santiago-Valentin, one of the many great educators who are fighting for education and advocating for our youth. One of the founding members of CURE  — Community United for the Renaissance in Education– a bilingual parent advocacy group working to improve the educational system in New London, Connecticut and an educator for over twenty-five years, Maria has dedicated her life to the pursuit of knowledge.

“Education is a lifelong experience,” she shares with Latinas In Business. “To achieve success one must acknowledge that they do not know everything.  We need to update our skills and open ourselves to other cultures, to opposition, to failure and strive for classroom inclusion to see what we need to work on internally to be where we want to be in order to have an impact in our field.”

Maria has lived by this motto all her life as one can see by looking at her extensive list of degrees and certifications. Living in Puerto Rico she studied Language, Literature, and Translation in English, Spanish, and French. In 1991 she began her career as an ESL teacher in Puerto Rico where she taught for several years. Later her love of language lead her to the United States where she pursued her second M.A. in French and Francophone Literature at the University of Connecticut which she completed in 2002.

Challenging herself to reach new heights, Maria sought to become a certified Learning Disabilities Consultant / Case Manager and now works at a public high school in New Jersey to help meet the learning needs of students who require extra attention and inclusion in the classroom. 

And with several M.A.’s and certificates under her belt, it is only natural that Maria is now pursuing her Doctorate in Education, specializing in Reading, Literacy, and Assessment. The learning never stops!

Sharing messages with future generations

classroom inclusion

Maria Santiago-Valentin receives a recognition from Sira Macias Chacon, Human Rights International Commissioner and President, Caminando Juntos por el Cambio in Santiago de Guayaquil, 2018.

“The message and principles we share with the future generations in our homes and our schools is what is going to bring changes and paradigm shifts in society,” says Maria.

This is the core message Maria imparts to others, especially the youth. “In order to advance, there must be continual knowledge and education both at school and in the home. Children must always be learning to become adults who will continue to learn and be open and tolerant to new experiences, cultures, and ideas. Our futures depend on our children, so we must equip them with the necessary tools for success, and that all begins with education,” she affirmed. 

This educational foundation extends to all children regardless of their background or abilities. Always striving for acceptance and inclusion in the classroom, Maria has used her experiences as an educator and Learning Disabilities Consultant to write a book for educators on the topic of mental health. Her book Bipolar Disorder: Etiology and Treatment Overview: Mindfulness, Medication, Digital Psychiatry and Classroom Accommodations explores ways of approaching issues of mental illness in the classroom and how to accommodate for these students so that they may receive the proper attention and care. Maria works diligently as an educator to ensure that all students have the opportunity to receive a quality education as it is the foundation that they will build a lifetime of learning upon.

Her call to advocacy

During her years in Connecticut, Maria first became rigorously involved in the education advocacy community. Working at public schools in New London, Connecticut, Maria saw that there was much work that needed to be done to improve the quality of education. Two of her main areas of focus were to incorporate multilingual programs into schools’ curriculum and to fight for public school funding.

A staunch supporter of multilingual studies—being that she is fluent in Spanish, English and French— Maria has championed for multilingual programs in schools since her time teaching in the New London Public School District. With CURE, Maria helped support local public schools and bring awareness to multilingual studies by organizing a variety of events including parades to the public library, translated events, and community forums.

classroom inclusion

Maria Santiago-Valentin, Educator and Activist for classroom inclusion and environmental sustainability

From 2004 – 2007 Maria also served as one of the plaintiffs of in the “Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding” which sought to ensure that adequate funding was being “distributed equitably based on student learning needs, fair measures of town wealth, and fidelity to the tax equalization principles underlying the ECS.”

In March of 2015, Maria’s advocacy work was honored with an award presented by the New Jersey Hispanic Newspaper Poder Latino USA, which commended her contributions to improving education in urban public schools and her advocacy and volunteer work in Connecticut and New Jersey.

Environmental activism  

Another issue close to Maria’s heart is protecting the environment. Anyone keeping up with current events will know that our environment is in dire need of help. Environmental crises such as the California wildfires, the increase in devastating hurricanes, and the deadly drops in temperature this winter have shown that our planet is crying out for help. Still the political world is full of debate and controversy over climate change, with deniers holding important positions in office. If education is to ensure that our youths have the knowledge to advocate for change, then environmentalism is to ensure that our youths will have a habitable planet to enact change upon.

classroom inclusion environment

Maria Santiago-Valentin, speaker at climate change rallies in New Jersey

Maria is just as passionate as an environmental activist as she has been for education advocacy. She has worked diligently with organizations and local legislation attending marches, representing projects such as the Climate Reality Project, and speaking publicly about critical issues. In 2016 she spoke alongside Assemblyman John McKeon about new bills passed by the New Jersey State legislature that would make critical steps towards helping the environment.

In 2017 Maria took her activism a step farther, founding the NJ Coalition for Climate Justice, an organization that works to bring together social justice movements with environmental movements. The organization has lead community events, marches, and provided aid to those in Puerto Rico affected by Hurricane Maria.

Currently Maria serves as Vice-Chair of the NJ Environmental Justice Committee and has worked for OFA (Obama for America/Organizing for Action) as a volunteer for 8 years. Through OFA Maria became a Climate Reality Project Leader, a role that has allowed her to be a mentor to a diverse group of individuals from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and New Jersey.

Overcoming opposition

As a resilient Latina, Maria has persevered through all the challenges she’s faced over the years in her career. She has never let opposition get in her way of achieving her goals. Still when she came to the U.S. over twenty years ago, she struggled with an issue many immigrants face: she was self-conscious of her accent –despite being fluent in three languages! She worried about the biases people would have toward her when they heard her accent and this lead to an intense fear of public speaking.

She however did not let that fear stop her. “I faced bias, skepticism, and opposition,” she says, “but that did not scare me or make me shy away. That was the fuel that motivated me to continue to prove the skeptics that I was being underestimated.”

She has since made various major presentations at the Learning Disabilities Association of America NJ Chapter, the GSA Forum, and the NJEA Teacher’s Convention and will also be presenting at the NECTFL this year on a talk about Dyslexia and the Foreign Language learner.

Maria is filled with gratitude for all the experiences she’s had, both positive and negative for they have only made her stronger and more inspired to learn and grow. She hopes to continue to be an inspiration for others and to advocate for education and environmentalism, be a mindful and inclusive educator, and of course never stop learning.