A few years ago, I was listening to the radio on my way home when I heard an alarming statistic: Connecticut is home to some of the most segregated schools in the United States. Before then, it had never occurred to me that school segregation continued to be a problem here in Connecticut, much less in my own town.
After years of thinking teaching wasn’t for me, I felt compelled to showcase that Hispanic women like me can be teachers and that all students, including students who look like me, deserve to feel represented in their classrooms. When I got to the classroom, I realized that segregated schools were only part of the problem that has historically led the education system to not serve our students equitably.
As it stands in Connecticut, classrooms are not inclusive places for many of our students. When students don’t see themselves represented in their curriculum, they are less likely to connect with their education, and therefore less likely to succeed. Despite the efforts of many fantastic educators who prioritize diverse perspectives and cultural inclusion in their lesson plans, we can’t do it alone. To ensure that all students feel seen and respected in their classrooms, we need to make sure the curriculum reflects their different experiences.
The problems with curriculum aren’t exclusive to Connecticut. Across the country, only 35% of teachers believe that their curricula is culturally relevant to their student population. Due to a lack of funding in our highest-need schools, many district-supplied materials are often outdated and only reflect one perspective, placing the burden on teachers to find inclusive teaching materials. When I began teaching, I quickly realized that our books only followed white characters, our flashcard and workbook illustrations lacked diversity and our math problems only featured traditionally white names. I now regularly supply my classroom with books and tools that represent my students, incorporating inclusivity into all of our subjects, not just in our history classes.
During my time as a teacher, I have also learned that getting to know students each year is extremely important to successfully making my curriculum inclusive. Not all cultures are the same, and it is important to acknowledge differences and ask questions about students’ backgrounds. As a Hispanic teacher in a bilingual classroom, the majority of my students are also Hispanic. While this means many of us have shared experiences, it does not mean our cultures, histories and experiences are the same. To be mindful of these differences, I make sure to not only include my students in my lesson planning, but to involve their families as well. Speaking to parents and asking them how I can help to support their children allows me to establish an environment where everyone feels comfortable and open to learning, and to incorporate diverse cultures into the curriculum.
While, as teachers, we can commit to working toward culturally relevant education and classroom inclusivity, our districts also need to commit to increasing teacher diversity. When students of color are taught by teachers of the same race, they feel more comfortable in the classroom, show more interest and effort in their schoolwork, and have higher college aspirations. However, going back to school for master’s degrees in teaching is expensive, time consuming and not feasible for everyone. If we want a more diverse teaching force, we must provide more accessible pathways to teaching. Student residency programs, considering hours spent in the classroom and alternative teaching certifications all provide additional options to individuals willing to teach.
Currently, bills around the country are targeting schools and banning teachers from talking about racism and inequality under the guise of critical race theory. This is creating an uproar surrounding educators simply incorporating inclusive practices and lessons into their classrooms, resulting in students missing out on a holistic and accurate education. Ignoring students’ cultures is ignoring integral parts of our students’ identities, and we need to demand more. Not being inclusive leaves students behind, resulting in them succumbing to a system that already does not support or believe in them.
Incorporating culturally relevant education creates a space for everyone in our schools, and is vital to the success of each and every student. Call on your friends, your colleagues and your districts to increase cultural inclusivity, to increase teacher diversity, and to create an environment welcoming and comprehensive of every student. Our students deserve to feel seen.
Marines Silva is a teacher at Burns Latino Studies Academy in Hartford.