As a new teacher in Arizona 20 years ago, I found myself in the middle of a campaign against bilingual education.
Arizona voters had recently passed Proposition 203 restricting bilingual education and English as a Second Language instruction, as it was called then, following a campaign by the conservative businessman Ron Unz. I was told by seasoned teachers only to speak English to students and to only send letters home in English. Any administrator could write us up for speaking another language, I was told, and I could even be fired.
I worked with other teachers who saw the white supremacy in this initiative, though, who continued to use Spanish to communicate with students and their Spanish-speaking families. That experience taught me that there will always be someone trying to standardize teaching and issue misguided, top-down directives. But it’s my job to provide my students what they actually need — and I need to bring my whole self to the job to do that.
Last year, in my 21st year working in education and after eight years working in school leadership, I found myself back in the classroom, relearning those lessons. It was the fall of 2020, and the students in my mixed-age class of fourth and fifth graders had questions about the history of voting in the United States. How does voting work? What is the “electoral college”? Wait, Black people weren’t allowed to vote? Why did Black people have to march and pay taxes and take literacy tests just to vote?
Mix in the Black Lives Matter movement, and our conversations and history lessons expanded to include discussions about current events, debates, and commitments to using their voices to resist discrimination. Students wrote about “Democracy Heroes,” a term that my co-teacher used to describe folks from various racial, ethnic, gender, and class groups who have fought against oppression.
Virtual learning added more difficulty. When I changed to a mixed-age kindergarten and first grade class, It became clear that picking a picture book that would spark curiosity in a 5-year-old was key to keeping that child’s interest on Zoom. Having that student’s race reflected in the text was one way to do that. And writing? There is no way anyone ages 5-10 will write if they are not interested in the content — and that’s true when they’re getting regular, in-person instruction. Teaching and learning remotely meant that writing prompts had to include our students’ lives and realities.
That is why critical race theory is not something I will shy away from, even as lawmakers across half of our country ban certain kinds of discussions of race and racism.
Using texts that include our students’ lives and realities centers their experiences as raced people, a tenet of critical race theory. By engaging in research about “Democracy Heroes” and using picture books that focus on characters of color, Whiteness is decentered — another educational tenet of critical race theory. Finally, we all thought of how to sustain our cultures and our integrity through storytelling — another educational tenet of critical race theory. Critical race theory is interwoven in all that I do.
It happens that New York City parents are OK with that. I know this because I am also a doctoral student and member of the Urban Education Research Collective at the CUNY Graduate Center. Our project focused on listening to New York City parents voice their concerns and share their perspectives about schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s increased focus on racial justice. They told us that more parent and community engagement is needed to shape school policies; that their children’s social-emotional and mental health deserves more attention; and that New York City schools should use a more anti-racist and inclusive curriculum.
Teachers need the freedom to do what we have been charged to do – to educate. As we get deeper into the 21st century, we have to leave the tools of and perceived “normalcy” of White supremacy behind us, too.
To do my job last year, I needed an environment that let me use all of my tools to figure out how to teach reading, writing, and math, and hold space for all of the kids’ questions. I needed space to be a teacher who was racially literate and racially radical, who could both answer students’ questions about the world we live in now and help them imagine a world where racism does not shape their life opportunities.
I had that space, but not all educators do. Please, just let us all educate — and let us be our whole selves.
David R. Rosas is a first-generation, bilingual, queer-identified, Indigenous, Native New Yorker from Hell’s Kitchen, pre-gentrification, and is now an assistant principal at the Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights. David has been an educator for 21 years and has worked as a teacher in grades K-7, an instructional coach, assistant principal, and principal in elementary schools. Additionally, he advises pre-service school leaders at Bank Street College of Education and Teachers College, Columbia University.
As a recent high school graduate, I have been reflecting on my senior year, which was particularly grueling. Due to COVID, I missed the daily excitement of seeing my friends and teachers in person. My family also faced significant challenges this past year that made me feel uncertain about my future.
When my father — who has worked in construction almost around the clock for the past 15 years — noticed a bump on his neck last fall, we thought it was a torn muscle from his constant work, including as the superintendent for three buildings. My father told us it was extremely painful, and my mom made him a doctor’s appointment, which revealed that he had cancer. Despite his compromised immune system and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he continued to work because he is our family’s sole provider.
My father grew up in Puebla, Mexico, attended school until the third grade and has been working ever since. Many New York City students have immigrant parents who make similar sacrifices for their children. Some 37% of New York City public schoolchildren have a parent with limited English proficiency. Their parents, like mine, want their children to have a better future and new opportunities. Opportunities like going to college.
When I found out my father had cancer in November, I was finalizing my personal statement and completing my Common Application, which allows students to apply to multiple colleges with a single application. I began to feel hopeless, doubting that I’d be able to accomplish my goals. I began to lose interest in the college application process and wanted to focus on my dad’s health. I considered getting a job when I graduated high school to help my dad and my family.
When I told my college counselor at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School — known as WHEELS — that I didn’t feel like finishing the Common Application, he told me that it was still important to complete the process. He said that if I didn’t, I might regret it. He offered me a glimmer of hope and reminded me that I have to keep going even if it feels overwhelming.
Once I brought in my family’s financial documents, my college counselor encouraged me to learn more about in-state colleges that I could afford through the Higher Education Opportunity Program, or HEOP, and the Educational Opportunity Program, or EOP, for state universities in New York. Both programs provide low-income college students financial and academic support. I applied to 11 colleges and their HEOP or EOP programs, knowing that these programs would alleviate my worry about going into debt to attend college.
My college counselor and the team at Friends of WHEELS — a nonprofit that offers leadership development, and college and career access and support to WHEELS students — were there for me when I really needed them. They made sure I turned in my finished personal statement, my college application, and the federal financial aid paperwork. They advocated for me with several college admissions officers.
This fall, I’ll be attending Fordham University at Lincoln Center through their HEOP program. I am a member of the Class of 2025.
All schools deserve to have the resources, staff, and expertise, or partner organizations like Friends of WHEELS, to connect with all students. But that is not the case. The average New York City guidance counselor has a caseload of 333 students. National caseloads are even heavier: 424 on average.
Counselors can play a big role in helping students achieve what might otherwise feel impossible: pursuing college and other opportunities beyond high school. But we need more of them, especially given the fallout from the COVID pandemic. The city should use this recovery period to make intensive college counseling the norm and not the exception. Expanding access to counselors — through hiring or partnering with counseling organizations — must be a priority for the next New York City mayor.
Students have to navigate complex personal and family issues that schools might not notice or acknowledge. And students often hide what’s really going on in their lives. I, for one, didn’t want to show the hard parts of my personal life. (Eventually, I shared my struggles and found a sympathetic ear.) While my father is still managing cancer, I am confident that by pursuing a college degree, I will soon be able to contribute financially to my family.
When the stakes are high, students need counselors in their corners to remind them of the many opportunities that await them — the very opportunities that so many parents, especially immigrant parents, have sacrificed for them to have.
Kevin Herrera is a member of the Fordham University Class of 2025. He plans to major in natural sciences. He has two brothers and loves playing with his dogs.
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