Looking Within Before Speaking Out

When she became principal at an urban Catholic elementary school, Nilda Cordova ’12 ’13 ’18 (above, left) was excited to build relationships with her students, “empowering them with the knowledge and the skills they need to be successful in and outside the classroom.”

But Cordova, who is Puerto Rican, discovered racism and discrimination within the school’s walls in the treatment of her students, most of whom are African American, and in the way some colleagues disrespected her and undermined her authority.

“I’ve experienced racism, but I was brought up to sweep it under the rug,” she says. “It came to a point where I could no longer stay silent, and I had to speak up.”

Cordova says she sought, but didn’t receive, support from school administrators. She has talked to other principals and teachers in similar situations, whose efforts to challenge and fight racist behaviors in schools have been met with disbelief, resistance and hostility.

“It’s not going to go away unless we have these open, candid conversations about race and racism in our schools. Especially with our teachers,” she says.

“You have predominantly white teachers teaching children of color where they don’t value and recognize the rich heritage that our students bring with them into the classroom,” Cordova continues. “Our students are made to conform to this white culture and Western type of teaching.”

Rather than force students to conform to one culture and one set of values, some educators are embracing cultural proficiency and culturally responsive teaching practices. A culturally proficient educator understands how race, social class and more shape people and behavior, and culturally responsive teaching practices use this knowledge to effectively engage students and build meaningful relationships.

“It’s just really valuing the diversity that we have in our schools and lifting up that lived experiences of our students of color — their resilience, their intelligence, the creativity that they bring with them,” Cordova says. “Helping them and teaching them so that they can become change agents and our leaders of the future is so important.”

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Sarah Weidner ’19 (above, right) noticed a mismatch at the high school where she is a special education teacher. About 90% of her fellow teachers, including Weidner, are white; about 60% of the students they served are not.

It’s a scenario that plays out in schools around the United States, where the majority of educators are currently white, teaching a student population that increases in diversity each year.

Of the 50+ million students enrolled in U.S. public schools in 2017, 15% were Black, 27% Hispanic, 5% were Asian/Pacific Islander, 1% were American Indian/Alaska Native, 4% were two or more races and 48% were white. On the other hand, 79% of public school teachers were white.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Weidner observed that this cultural mismatch produced “palpable consequences” for students, including lower graduation rates, higher absenteeism, and more instances of behavioral discipline for Black and Hispanic students.

As an Alverno graduate student, Weidner decided to explore this discrepancy. Her capstone research project supported the creation of a professional development program to help educators develop their cultural proficiency. Her school district didn’t offer any such development, so she saw a need and rose to meet it.

“I felt like I could add something to our school community,” she says.

Over the summer, Weidner convened a group of eight teachers, including Black, Hispanic and white men and women. The group met over six weeks to learn about such topics as bias and intersectionality as well as to discuss how to put these ideas into practice.

Among the resources Weidner finds helpful: Promoting Excellence for All, an online course offered by the Wisconsin Department for Public Instruction; and All Students Must Thrive, a book about students’ social-emotional wellbeing by Tyrone C. Howard

“Everybody walked away viewing their students and the way they were going to interact with their students differently. Everybody grew,” she says. “That’s the point of culturally responsive teaching. We’re all going to grow so much from each other. My students enrich my life in so many different ways.”

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The first step toward embracing an anti-racist view is examining our own attitudes, beliefs and biases.

“People confuse bias and racism, so they don’t want to admit to bias. I’ve worked with plenty of educators who won’t even admit they have bias. That’s amazing, because I have bias. We all have bias,” Weidner says. “Knowing that, understanding the bias, allows for you to check yourself and the way you interact with kids.”

As part of Cordova’s Alverno doctoral studies, she took the opportunity to examine her own biases during a recent course focused on equity in diverse educational settings.

“I first have to look at myself and educate myself. That empowered me with the academic knowledge and the skills that I needed to engage in a critical conversation about race. It’s something that I didn’t have before, but now I feel like I can engage in those conversations and not back down,” Cordova says.

“I can’t stay silent for all the students that are experiencing this inequity and injustice in these classrooms, which should be a safe environment for them.”

Self-examination may be the first step, but it shouldn’t be the only step. There is so much to learn and to then put into action. The work is difficult and may be uncomfortable. It will likely entail making mistakes. But Cordova and Weidner encourage us to dive in anyway.

“I don’t know everything. Nobody knows everything. We only learn from each other,” says Weidner. “This is what the work is about. We could do so many great things if we could come out of our comfort zones.”


This article appears in the fall/winter 2020 issue of Alverno Magazine.

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