Award-winning teachers fend off attacks on ‘honest education’

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Across the country, dozens of contentious political debates have erupted over how teachers talk about race, sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. But many educators say they felt left out of the conversation.

A new scholarship program, run by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the Education Civil Rights Alliance, a collective effort of nonprofits, teachers’ unions and civil rights groups, seeks to amplify teachers’ voices on how to preserve classrooms “as spaces for honest, student-centered dialogue.

The Voices for Honest Education Fellowship is paid and open to nationally and internationally renowned, award-winning educators in the United States. Educators are spending a year engaging state legislators, training educators on upcoming legislation, and talking about the importance of “honest and assertive education.”

The first five fellows – who are former State Teachers of the Year from Texas, Georgia, Colorado, Louisiana and Massachusetts – released a report this month outlining research that indicates affirming student identity in the classroom can improve academic achievement. Culturally appropriate teaching has also been found to increase student motivation, interest in content, and the perception of themselves as capable students.

Education Week spoke with three of the awardees – Tracey Nance, Georgia’s 2020 and 2021 Teacher of the Year, Gerardo Muñoz, Colorado’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, and Takeru “TK” Nagayoshi , the 2020 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year – about the state of education and their goals for the scholarship. None of these three educators are in the classroom yet: Muñoz is now the head of learning and development for Denver Public Schools, and Nagayoshi is the professional learning director of community events for Panorama Education.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your report emphasizes the importance of an honest and rewarding education for students. What might that look like? Why is this so important?

Nance: We spoke to educators across the country, award-winning teachers like us who do the work in the classrooms. They are the ones who talk to the parents. They are the ones who teach according to our state standards. When we talk about a student-affirming education, we always start with these state standards, but we’re talking about creating an environment where children feel welcome, where we invite them and each of their identities into the classroom, a space where their voice is valued and where they have the freedom to honestly ask and receive answers to their questions.

In this classroom, it is also culturally appropriate, and that doesn’t just mean providing multicultural materials to students. It also means ensuring that the curriculum represents the students who sit in our classrooms. The truth is that our country is more diverse than it has ever been. Our students deserve to be seen and to have their stories told.

Munoz: I grew up in a school where the curriculum was divisive – there was a wall between me and the curriculum. I could not log in to the program. I have been sent messages saying that Mexican Americans like me have made no significant contribution to the growth and development of the United States of America. I never even read a novel by a Mexican American author until I was in college, and that’s inexcusable. I should have had the opportunity to understand my community, my neighborhood, my family, my father’s country of origin in a historical context.

For me, these student affirmation practices dissolve the walls that separate our children from each other and separate our society from each other.

How does legislation on how race and sexuality are discussed in the classroom or LGBTQ student rights in school affect this work?

Nope : I think that’s terrifying as an educator and parent living in Georgia where this legislation has already taken off. I’m afraid our state will be the next to have a “don’t say gay” law. It is very harmful for our children.

I’m thinking in particular of a little girl named Sarah who had four moms and lived with all four of them, as her original family had divorced and remarried. What does it say to children when we tell them, “You can’t talk about the house? He doesn’t tell them to “don’t say gay”. He tells them “don’t be gay”. … We need to give them the right messages that they are just as worthy and just as loved as their classmates.

Munoz: When I look at the work that I’ve done for two decades alongside incredible scholars and incredible families and communities and of course students, I was getting to the point where I actually thought victory was near in terms of representation of everyone in the classrooms. … And now we are seeing a truly shattering backlash.

Gerardo A. Munoz

A part of me looks at him and says, “Well, this is the evolution of a fight that my ancestors have always fought for dignity and for survival.” But I think the difference right now is how opponents of honest education are trying to codify their intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and harmful behaviors into law. These voices do not represent everyone. It’s a small part of our population that takes up a lot of space, that makes a lot of noise about these things.

And the legislation, if you look from state to state, is so unclear. It’s confusing for teachers. So when teachers actually say, “OK, what are the things I’m allowed to teach that I’m not allowed to teach?” Much of this legislation, even in the same locality, is contradictory and sends mixed messages. So what happens is that the majority of teachers who need these jobs to survive are going to say, “I won’t touch any of this because it’s confusing.”

What do you think all of this means for the longevity of teachers in the classroom, especially teachers from marginalized backgrounds?

Munoz: When we think about the code-switching that’s required of many of us when we’re already entering these professional environments, and then finding ourselves being targeted by these bad actors, it’s very dangerous. I think that has terrible implications for the need to put a faculty in front of students who come from those communities, who relate to those communities, who look like those communities, and who have experiences that can be really helpful to ensure that all children have the opportunity to succeed and build the life they want to build.

I think this has huge implications of “Wow. So you’re going to erase my history? Maybe I don’t want to come in [teaching]. Why am I? You clearly don’t like me if you try to erase who I am.

During the scholarship, you will spend the next year emphasizing the importance of an honest and assertive education. What will it look like?

Nance: We write every week on a Medium blogand we bring our reflections in press articles [about] our own experiences in the classroom to really anchor that and make sure people know our hearts and know what we teach in the schools.

We know that parents support their local schools. It is all this otherness that they do not know. Ignorance breeds fear. So we want to shine a light on all the work that educators do, and that we’re not here to indoctrinate anyone, but we’re here to teach kids to have strong personalities and turn to honest storytelling to solve problems today.

Munoz: When we look at some of the misinformation that’s been floating around that informs a lot of these legislative and policy decisions, I think there are a lot of incorrect assumptions. Do parents deserve a voice? Absolutely. Do children deserve a voice? Absolutely. Do teachers deserve to be treated like the professionals we are? Yes. These are not mutually exclusive goals. These are goals that have to happen together, otherwise it doesn’t work.

The way I look forward to next year, learning from these amazing state teachers of the year is a beautiful thing. What I hope is to learn how to make other voices heard. … We need to make sure people feel safe and protected in their speech and association. I would love to learn what an honest upbringing looks like from community to community.

Nance: In addition to this, we will meet with representatives and decision-makers and write opinion pieces which we will submit to national and local newspapers. We’re looking at the whole country because we’re seeing this impact everywhere, and it’s starting locally.

Often, we find that it starts with well-funded parent advocacy groups. So we’re going to train school board members and train parents and educators, really trying to educate. We found that even among the award-winning teachers, some were unaware of what was happening in their state.

How would you sum up the message you hope to share this coming year?

Takeru

Nagayoshi: I think basically it’s about getting educators to take up the narrative of what’s happening in our schools. Politicians making our educational space a battleground have both scared teachers away from the classroom, kept people from wanting to join the classroom, and ultimately impacted the students who were there.

We, as people who have been in the classroom [and] taught on the front line, know that what is said there is not true. But often we are not empowered to come together and explore what it is.

We also lack the best practices to counter this message and the means to articulate what honest and inclusive education looks like. It’s a space that incubates a lot of these ideas and great minds together and pushes this contrary to this narrative that we’re seeing.

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