Feature Article

The Power of Reflection

By Mary Tamer

Claudia Rinaldi was 11 years old when her family moved from Colombia to the United States. As she learned, this transformative change involved not only geography, but cultural and linguistic shifts as well. Miami, her new home, had its share of Spanish speakers, but in her middle school and high school, she was expected to speak only English. It could have been a major setback, but luckily, something important happened: Rinaldi had a group of caring teachers who encouraged her not to get discouraged. It worked and she ultimately followed in the footsteps of her grandmother on the path to teaching.

Now, as an educator of more than 20 years, Rinaldi knows that her student success story is not often shared by others of similar backgrounds. In a country where classrooms are filled with a majority of African-American, Asian, and an ever increasing numbers of Latino students, the majority of teachers - more than 80 percent - remain white.

Illustration by Michelle Kondrich

Rinaldi knows this has to change. That's why she's leading a new program called Pathways to Teacher Diversity (PTD), designed to increase racial and cultural diversity in the teacher pipeline. That increase, she knows, is critical. As Education Week reported back in 2014, this "new collective majority of minority schoolchildren," which includes more students living in poverty and those classified as English Language Learners, have historically not been well served in the U.S. system. For example, students of color often do not have positive relationships with teachers, they are suspended at higher rates, they have more negative experiences within school settings, and they are not able to relate culturally or otherwise to the teachers leading their classrooms.

"When the teacher is unable to identify with anything you bring into the classroom as a student, that's difficult," said Rinaldi, an associate professor of education at Lasell who has led teacher training programs for the last 18 years. "You identify with someone who looks like you. There are cultural patterns that we see and we know exist."

With $50,000 in grant funding already awarded for PTD for FY17 and FY18 - and with hope of more to come - Rinaldi's passion project to tackle the lack of diversity in the teacher training pipeline is now fully underway.

THE MASSACHUSETTS LANDSCAPE

In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MA DESE) released a report produced by a task force charged with making recommendations to diversify the state's teaching ranks and to improve outcomes for students of color. This work, funded by a federal grant, was driven by MA DESE's recognition of the need "to provide the supports needed to recruit, retain, and promote a diverse workforce in schools throughout the Commonwealth and to decrease out-of-school time for all students, and particularly those who have experienced opportunity gaps."

While the demographics of students across the Commonwealth's 404 school districts vary widely, the teaching force, largely, does not, with white teachers holding 91 percent of the jobs statewide - well above the national average. As The Boston Globe reported in February 2017, the "Massachusetts public school population has grown increasingly diverse in recent years, but the state's teaching force has remained overwhelmingly white - a worrisome mismatch that, studies show, reduces minority student performance."

When MA DESE sought proposals in 2016 from the state's nearly 80 teacher training programs to address this issue, only four were selected to share the available $200,000 in funding, including Rinaldi's PTD. Inspired by a program at Clemson University named Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) designed to increase teacher diversity in South Carolina's lowest performing schools, Rinaldi crafted a proposal with a clear and distinct purpose. It worked.

"We are the only private college they funded," said Rinaldi, "and here's why: what made us unique is that I proposed we would create a mentoring program connecting our education students and the high school students interested in teaching careers. The high school students get the benefit of working with a college mentor going through the teacher training program, and we are the only grant recipient creating a mentoring curriculum that starts with this approach."

In recounting last year's activities, Rinaldi said year one was designed to promote this new initiative and to identify school-based liaisons who would be equally committed to this work. With partnerships already underway with the Marlborough and Maynard public school systems, Rinaldi also reached out to a contact on Martha's Vineyard as well as two school leaders in the Boston Public Schools, who oversee the district's only bilingual high school and one of three bilingual K-8 schools, respectively.

At each of the participating schools, students who showed an interest in a teaching career were identified and brought to Lasell's campus for a lively information session facilitated by faculty and education undergraduates. For the program's first event last year, Rinaldi said a diverse group of undergraduates shared their own stories on applying to college and enrolling in a teacher training program. Games were played, program details presented, and Latin music filled the room. Following the session, the school-based liaisons helped narrow down the group of students interested in continuing with either the mentorship component or a dual enrollment opportunity, where they would take an introductory education class alongside Lasell students studying to be teachers.

By the Numbers: United States Teachers - 82% white, 7% black, 8% Hispanic, 3% other | United States Students: 51% white, 16% black, 24% Hispanic, 9% other (Source: U.S. Department of Education, "The State of Diversity in the Educator Workforce," July 2016 (figures cited in report are from 2012)). Massachusetts Teachers: 90% white, 4% black, 4% Hispanic, 1% Asian, 1% other | Massachusetts Students: 61% white, 8.9% black, 19.4% Hispanic, 6.7%Asian, 4% other (Source: Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (2016-2017)).

In all, 180 students came to campus for the information session; 26 were selected by school liaisons to move forward, either with the dual enrollment pathway or undergraduate mentorship. Rinaldi has placed great emphasis on the mentorship piece, and six of the eight undergraduate mentors are students of color working directly with high school students of color. PTD mentors will not only provide participating students with a glimpse into a teacher training program, but will also support their mentees in navigating the often daunting college admissions process, one that can serve as a barrier for first generation college students.

"This work is critical because we urgently need more high school and college partnerships that facilitate pathways for learning and careers," said Dania Vázquez, a PTD liaison and the founding headmaster of Boston's only bilingual - and predominantly Latino - high school, Margarita Muñiz Academy

"In particular, we need to increase the diversity in the teacher training pipeline as we continue to strive for equity and culturally sustaining practices at all levels of education and beyond, most especially in the context of our current political climate," said Vázquez. "We are at a critical crossroads in our society where we must actively promote diversity as well as the strengths offered by our diverse students to all our communities."

NEXT STEPS

As the program moves forward, Rinaldi is learning more about the challenges of seeing all of her program goals come to fruition. The dual enrollment component of PTD has been difficult logistically for some participating high school seniors enrolled in Rinaldi's Invitation to Teaching class, which includes a mix of three on-campus sessions and the rest online. Conversations are taking place to possibly shift this part of the program to junior year to better accommodate student schedules, and liaisons are also wondering whether these classes can be taught at participating high schools.

Illustration by Michelle Kondrich

There's also the diversity issue. And as Rinaldi takes part in events across the state involving the heads of other teacher training programs, she is one of two Latinas leading this work, finding herself in educational spaces filled with people who do not reflect the demographic shifts in today's classrooms.

"How can you recruit students of color when the people leading these programs are not representative?" asked Rinaldi. "That's why I really fostered the Latino side of this program, because I can relate to those students."

Research tells us that these relationships matter, and Rinaldi says a part of her work involves sharing her own story, demystifying the college process, and dispelling myths around who can teach, and who can't.

"I had one student who asked me, can I become a teacher if I have an accent?" said Rinaldi. "We need to let students of different backgrounds know of the assets they are bringing into the classroom."

These assets include bilingualism and biculturalism, according to PTD liaison Leah Palmer, the English Language Learner director for Martha's Vineyard Public Schools. Based on her own experience - and in an island district where only one African-American and three Latinos teach among a total of 123 teachers - Palmer fully supports Rinaldi's efforts to diversify school staffs for the betterment of the student experience.

"When students do not see themselves in their teachers - have a mirror experience - it is hard to engage or connect them with the learning,"said Palmer. "When teachers can connect with students' backgrounds and build on their personal experience, students feel connected to the learning. This is invaluable in investing students in their learning within the school walls and beyond."

As Rinaldi presses forward with PTD's work under the MA DESE grant, which concludes this year, she continues to refine the program's structure and outreach as more grant funding is sought. She's creating a one-credit course for Lasell undergraduates who sign up to be mentors, moving forward with dual enrollment for additional high schools, and planning parent engagement sessions in Portuguese and Spanish to help expand PTD's outreach to the communities most underrepresented in the classroom.

And she will continue to tell students of color why the profession of teaching is one that bestows rewards far beyond opportunities available to those without a college degree.

"We want high school students to know that the pipeline without a college degree is not as long," said Rinaldi, "and it is our job to show them how that translates to the future. With a degree, I have options, and that is what I tell my students."

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