EduCATion Today #5 Sonia Nieto
Welcome to Education Today, the issues and the experts, a web series hosted by the College of Education at Kansas State University. I’m Debbie Mercer and I serve as a Dean of the College. Today, we have as our guest Dr. Sonia Nieto, a renowned Author and Researcher who has dedicated her life and her career to Social Justice Education. Dr. Nieto is a Professor in Emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in Language, Literacy, and Culture. Dr. Nieto, we’re thrilled to have you at K-State, so welcome! Thank you Debbie, I’m very happy to be here. Very good! You are passionate about social justice education. Tell us how you came to that line of work, and just describe your passion for this issue. Yeah and I guess I have been passionate about it for as long as the term has existed, but even before that, and part of it has to do with autobiography, you know, it all goes back to our own lives, what we’ve experienced, and how that colors what we do. It doesn’t determine what we do, but it certainly influences it. And so as a Puerto Rican child born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I spoke only Spanish when I started school. And I think that that was the first realization that I was different from other kids, and I couldn’t put it into words yet, but I felt sort of alienated because I couldn’t speak the language, but it wasn’t only that. It was the fact that I couldn’t speak the language was seen as a problem rather than an asset. Again, I didn’t have these words for then, and I was told not to speak Spanish in class. My mother was advised to speak to us only in English at home. I am so grateful that she never did that because I don’t think I’d be here today, and I’ve been able to hold on to Spanish which is an incredible benefit in my life and a treasure. So, it starts with that. Then I became a teacher and when I became a teacher, I quickly learned that there are the haves and have nots. Although I had also grown up in relative poverty, I saw that my kids were suffering even more and that too often race, ethnicity, language, social class, and other differences had a lot to do with that, and so that further encouraged my passion for diversity, and equity, and social justice. When I became a teacher educator, I was determined to make things easier for the young people who I taught, who were going to be teachers so that they would have an easier time of it. Not that it’s ever easy being a teacher, but by the time I was in my, even my first year of teaching, I knew that there had to be a better way of doing things, a way of honoring students for who they are and also opening up other possibilities for them, so that helped a lot too in increasing my advocacy and my passion for these things, and of course, becoming a teacher educator at [xx] UMAS, after I studied for my doctorate, just opened up the world to me and really showed me how much work we have to do in this area. So, talk about that work that we have yet to do, and what do students that are in and educator preparation program need to know, as well as what do our practicing teachers didn’t know? All teachers need to know who they are first of all, I think it begins with that. Who are you? Why are you in this line of work? What compels you? I was just talking to a group of undergraduate students, and I said to them, “Don’t be a missionary, we don’t need missionaries in education. Don’t go into save anybody, because I think what you’ll quickly find is that, you get more out of this career, this profession than you are able to give.” So I would say that that’s the first thing that they need to know, who they are, what their values are, what biases they bring into the classroom with them, because we all have them and it’s important to sort of understand them, and think about them, and think about how they might get in the way of being an effective teacher for all students. They need to know the students and the communities in which they work. I’m still astounded that some teachers really don’t know the communities where they work. They get there on time, they leave on time, but they never take a walk in the community. They don’t get to know the community residents, they don’t know anything about why the students are there. So for example, I used to teach of course, while teaching about the Puerto Rican experience, and I would start by asking the students in the class who were mostly teachers, why are there more Puerto Ricans in the United States than in Puerto Rico? Puerto Rico is part of the United States, so it’s part of U.S. history and yet some few people know about it, and don’t know why we are here. some of us have been here forever, I was born here. My father came in 1929, my mother came in 1934, they met in the States and married in the 40s, but Puerto Ricans have been part of the United States for a very long time. People who are teaching Puerto Rican kids or just U.S. citizens need to know that just because it’s part of our history,. So if you don’t know who your students are, you really cannot be an effective teacher of those students because they are no generic students. They are students with particular histories, particular biographies, particular experiences that we need to understand, in order to be effective with them. So what are other misperceptions about multicultural education that we should be made aware? That too is a very good question, because I think the field is full of misperceptions. One is that, it’s about political correctness and that one always gets me, because I think that it’s just the opposite, that teaching with multi-cultural perspective is a about opening minds rather than closing them. It’s a about going beyond one way of looking at things, and looking at things with multiple perspectives. That’s very hard, it is very hard if you’ve been used to a mono-cultural curriculum with one way of looking at things. A multicultural perspective says, wait a second, there are more ways. In one of my books I said specifically, “When you get to 17 ways of looking at things then you can say that you understand different perspectives.” So maybe you don’t have to do 17, but you have to do more than two or three, because there are so many ways of understanding reality. Especially living in a complex society like ours, you have to understand the experiences of others who are not like you, because you are not the way that the world turns, you are not the only way of looking at things, that’s why I think it’s important, for example, to learn another language. I encourage everybody to learn at least one other language because it gives them different tools for understanding reality. Language is really crucial, that’s why I said before I feel blessed that I am bilingual, because it gives me different ways of understanding not just words, not just vocabulary, but entire world views, which is not to say that everybody who speaks a particular language thinks in the same way, but it does bring an added sort of dimension to our understanding. So I would say that, that’s the greatest perception, it’s about political correctness, it’s not, and we are not here to to change people’s minds, we are here to open up possibilities which I think is what education is about anyway. I hope that we get to the day where we don’t call it multi-culture education, that we call it education because that’s what all education should be, and somehow we have been really good at stripping education of its multiculturalism, and our job is to learn to put it back in. So, could you give us a concrete example of a school or even a State that is making a positive impact and we could look to as a model?
Yeah, that’s a question that I often get and you know what I always say is that, I wouldn’t point to a particular school or a particular state. Because of the work that I’ve done with teachers, I look at teachers and what teachers do, and I know that has to be scaled up but I think we get in trouble when we try to have templates or models for doing things, because it’s not just about one way of doing things and I’ll give you an example of this. In my recent book, “Finding Joy in Teaching Students with Diverse Backgrounds,” there are over 20 teachers who are interviewed around the country. Each of them is so different, so for example, one of them insists on giving his home number and his cell number, his cell phone number to his students and telling them they can call him anytime. Another teacher would never do that. It doesn’t mean that that’s the only way to do things. Another teacher, an African-American woman said that she’s like a black momma in her classroom, and so she’ll say to her African-American students, all her students were African-American and she’d say, “kept it behind over there and sit,” now she said, that’s what your black momma would say. That doesn’t mean that every black momma would say that, and my kids know that I say that in a loving way, but as I say to groups of people who I speak with all time, do not try this if you are not black, or if you are not at least bicultural because it doesn’t mean that everybody has to be like that. Another example that I gave is, when I was teaching in the bi-lingual school in the Bronx, at the end of everyday, I would take my forth graders down to dismiss them, and most of them would stay and kiss me, and ask me for [xx], which is my blessing, that’s a very Puerto Rican thing. Now, I felt wonderful being able to do that, I didn’t see that as a religious thing at all. I would say [xx] which means may God bless you, but it’s a cultural thing. Do I think all teachers of Puerto Ricans or Latino kids should do this? No, absolutely not! You have to find a way to be a teacher with a multicultural perspective to be culturally responsible in a way that’s comfortable for you, that honors the students who you teach without being a template like everybody has to follow it. I just met the other day with Mary Cowhey, who is a former student of mine and who wrote a wonderful book called “Black Ants and Buddhists” that book I would recommend to everybody, and she was saying that her book is full of concrete examples of her work with the young children that are just excellent examples of culture responsive and socially just education. And she said, do I want everybody to have lessons based on the work that I’ve done? Of course, not. It’s a way of thinking that I want them to consider. How do you pick up on the serendipitous moments that happen in your classroom? What do you do with them? How can you improvise? How can you bring issues of relevance and importance into your curriculum in an intentional and authentic way? And that’s really what it’s about, so that’s why I stay away from schools or states, which doesn’t mean that I don’t think we need to scale up, of course, we do but the more concrete examples we have of what teachers do in the classrooms and what principals do in their schools, the better off we are. I agree in the power of teaching and the power that teachers have, and you’ve talked about that and the responsibility that comes with that. So what would you say to the future generation of teachers that are studying now, that have a growing skill set and the passion? Yeah, I just left a class where I was talking about that because people often ask you, what is your advice, and my advice after 50 years of teaching, I would edit it down to four things, one is to know yourself, I’ve mentioned that already, and know this to know your students, which I’ve also mentioned. When I say know your students, I also mean know their communities as well. Learn something about them and so when you do that, for example, learn another language, walk around the community, see what they have to offer. Don’t think of some communities as full of resources and others as bankrupt, because there’s no such thing. Third is to make friends in your school, have allies who can look out for you, who can mentor you, who you can mentor because teaching can be a very lonely profession and unless we have people who are watching our back it becomes even more difficult. And finally and this always elicits a little bit of a nervous laughter is, have a life, try to have a life and understand that teaching is your profession and your vocation, and it can be your life, it has been my life, but I have so many other important things in my life. I have my husband, I have my daughters, I have my grandchildren, I have my exercise, I have my friends, I have my knitting, I have all of these other interests that really keep me going, and we need that because if we become so focused that everything else is pushed to the side, that will make those other relationships suffer and you cannot enjoy it in the way that you should in order to be a fuller person, a fuller human being. A work life balance.
Yes, it’s easy to tip one direction or another if we are not mindful of it.
Absolutely, very good! Any last words you would like to share with us today? Well, it’s a pleasure to be here at KSU and I’m looking forward to meeting more of your students, and faculty, and staff here. I love the work that I do. I think that being a teacher and researcher is like the most rewarding work that one can have, I’m a little biased in that, but I find it really extraordinarily beneficial. It has made me, I hope, a better person, and I would hope that those who’re contemplating education as a profession and as a commitment will find the same rewards that I found in it. My desire as well. We’re so honored that you’d be with us, and we’re looking forward to continuing conversations and learning, and growing. So, thank you very much for sharing your time and your expertise with us. You’re welcome. Thank you for joining us today.