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Teacher Spotlight: Daniel Helena brings his own experiences in helping retain more teachers of color in L.A. classrooms

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | October 30, 2019



This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

In an attempt to find the answer to why teachers of color across the nation leave their classrooms at a higher rate, a report released last month by Teach Plus and Education Trust examined the problems these teachers face in navigating the profession.

As a teacher of color, Daniel Helena has experienced first hand the challenges chronicled in “If You Listen, We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover.” As a Teach Plus-California Policy Fellowship alumnus, he collaborated with the report’s authors for nearly a year by leading several focus groups with other educators in Los Angeles. Teach Plus is a national nonprofit with a mission to empower teachers to lead improvements in policy and practice during its nine-month fellowships.

Across the nation, 51 percent of students in U.S. public schools are students of color, but just 20 percent of teachers are teachers of color, according to the report, which also notes that in the 2000s, 15 percent of white teachers were leaving the profession compared to 19 percent of teachers of color.

Helena sees the negatives in too much teacher turnover in his own career and in meeting his goal to have schools better address the needs of the communities they serve.

“I’ve bounced around to different schools and I’m hoping to stay here for a while because I think that’s what it takes. You kind of get some agency in your classroom and then eventually the school, and then as you stay long enough, you get to know the community well.”

Helena is now in his third year at Kory Hunter Middle School, part of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools charter network, where he teaches sixth grade English. The school in Huntington Park in southeast Los Angeles is in a heavily Latino, low-income neighborhood. Many of Helena’s students are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, and like him, have Spanish as their first language.

Helena was born in Venezuela. He was 6 when he and his mother emigrated to the United States and settled in Atlanta, where he attended public schools. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a master’s in early childhood education from Georgia State University.

He began his career in the metro Atlanta public school system, where he taught for five years before moving to Los Angeles to work for Ednovate charter schools, where he implemented positive behavioral interventions at a high school. He says the number of suspensions there was drastically reduced by creating a character-building curriculum and establishing systems that recognized student accomplishments.

Helena says he feels supported at Kory Hunter and trusted in the classroom decisions he makes, but acknowledges that many teachers of color do not.

The Teach Plus report proposes that schools provide pathways for leadership for teachers of color as one of its five recommendations. Others are to provide mentorship, improve compensation and reduce isolation as ways of addressing the five main challenges leading educators of color to leave the profession: feeling unwelcome, invisible, undervalued, deprived of autonomy and placed in unfavorable working conditions.

LA School Report asked Helena about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as his goals for the 2019-20 school year. His answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to want to become a teacher?

I moved to the United States when I was 6 years old. It was just me and my mom. I guess I started teaching because I really benefited from having good teachers as a kid. I didn’t know any English when I moved to the United States, neither did my mom and so I was at the whim of the public school that was in our neighborhood. My mom didn’t know anything about the public school system. I ended up getting really lucky because I went to a pretty good school. It was a public school.

And so I was able to learn English pretty quickly. I already had a pretty strong foundation in Spanish, but I appreciate the help that I got when I was young and I became a teacher because I feel some kind of responsibility, some kind of calling to help families and students in a similar situation as mine. I currently teach in an area where there are a lot of Spanish- speaking families, where I’ve taught in different types of communities as well. So that’s why I started teaching.

How did you get involved in the Teach Plus and The Education Trust report?

Well, I’m at the point in my career where I’m interested to see and learn about different policies that affect classrooms. And through becoming a fellow for Teach Plus, I was able to meet other teachers, who are in this, who have similar interests, and we kind of landed on how to better support teachers of color and how they can be in the classroom longer. Because of my personal experience, being in traditional public and also charter schools, I noticed that it’s not easy — it’s not easy to teach — but it’s also not easy to teach in schools with high needs. And if you’re a teacher of color you can face additional challenges and obstacles.

What did you find new or surprising from the focus groups?

One thing that really resonated with me was a comment that I heard in my first focus group from an educator. They said that they wanted more professional development around youth culture. And the reason that resonates with me is because a lot of the times teachers, who share racial or cultural identity markers with students, are thought of as having an advantage with their students. But one identity marker that is really not talked about is age and the differences in generations. So just because you share that racial or cultural or ethnic identity marker doesn’t mean that you’re just, it’s going to be so easy for you. And schools and school systems really do need to adapt to understanding the current generation of students, the challenges that they face and how teachers in schools can support them and meet them where they’re at. There is a disconnect, not only academically in terms of what we’re having our students learn and how we’re having them learn, but also the space or the lack of space that we allow for our students to develop socially and emotionally as well.

From the report’s recommendations, which one do you consider to be crucial?

I would really push for the more culturally relevant professional development one, the one where teachers are having more opportunities to learn about trauma-informed practices, implicit bias training, because I have worked exclusively in high-need communities, communities, where based on standardized testing, the students don’t really perform very well and I don’t think it’s a representation of just students’ abilities. I think it’s more of a lack of understanding of the school systems and how to support the students. And so I say that because there’s a big gap in terms of I already mentioned this, about what adults understand and what needs to be done for students. And so, if we were able to educate our teachers better in terms of how to teach students who bring a lot of trauma into the classroom and how to help them navigate the world of academics, because we still have to teach them, we still have to get them to achieve at a high level, but we have to do that with more obstacles that a lot of (more) affluent communities don’t have to face.

What have you done in the classroom that has been innovating or unique?

When I worked at Ednovate, I taught ninth-grade English. I created a curriculum with another teacher. And that curriculum allowed students to explore their identity markers. They would read with other students and they ended up writing about the identity markers that most resonated with them. The ones they struggled with. It was just a really good opportunity for students to learn more about themselves. We were still able to teach the skills and the strategies that the students were responsible for, but we did it in a way where it was a lot more culturally relevant for them. And I think students really took a lot out of it, but they also enjoyed it.

How do you think school administrations or school districts could better support teachers of color?

Well, just like a teacher that looks at their curriculum, I think administrators need to do the the same with the type of professional development that they’re prioritizing. One of the challenges is teacher turnover. If there’s constant teacher turnover, then a lot of the times the schools have to constantly retrain teachers and those retrainings, sometimes they’re veteran teachers, the teachers who have been there for a while. They have to attend those too. And so for them, it’s not as meaningful, because they’ve already learned a lot of the training. But what can end up happening is that as a school, the school gets stuck in terms of their development and their learning, because we’re not teaching, we’re not differentiating our teaching to our teachers. It’s just like a good teacher teaches students who have various abilities and who come in at various readiness levels. Schools need to do the same with their teachers.

It is encouraging that LAUSD is looking to make some changes to their Aspiring Principals program and their curriculum, which is one of our recommendations. I hope that continues to build the … I guess build the momentum that we need to focus on how we’re developing our teachers. Because if teachers of color were — and really all teachers, but really if teachers of color — were receiving this type of training, it would be communicated that the work that sometimes is taken for granted, in terms of getting to know our students and understanding their situations well, we’re going to prioritize it so much that we’re going to professionalize that knowledge. The teacher who can speak in the student’s home language or can speak in a way that students understand and are more receptive to them. The teacher who can adapt their curriculum in a way that makes it more engaging for the students. We’re going to make that important. It needs to be prioritized and standardized.

What can parents do to better support teachers?

That’s a great question. From my perspective, parents, I feel a lot of love and appreciation from parents, I do. I still kind of want to put it on the school though. I think schools need to continue to reach out to parents, to educate parents. I worked at schools where not to over… I guess not to stereotype, but I worked at a lot of schools where there’s just a big gap of knowledge for the parents, in terms of how does the American schooling system work, how does the L.A. charter school system work. I mean a lot of people don’t know that. ‘How can I support my student at home so that I’m working at home to support them and then I trust that their teachers at school are also supporting them?’ So then we’re working as a team, teachers at the school and parents at the home base.

Currently, at my school, we have parent workshops. We have several events at the school, hosts like coffee with the principal, content nights, back to school nights. So engaging with the parents. When the school engages with the community, then it’s the responsibility of the parents to participate. But a lot of the times the parents don’t know. They don’t know where they can have an entryway. I’ve made home visits in the past and I’ve done research on how do parents perceive the school if they’re coming from a different country? Sometimes, parents, they see themselves as respecting the school by not getting involved, because they trust the school so much. It’s kind of backward from the American thinking of you need to be as involved as possible.

I’ve talked about educating the teachers better, obviously educating students better, but also educating the parents better and getting to know what questions they have so they can feel comfortable, especially when there’s a language barrier and the school personality is not equipped to necessarily understand and communicate with parents. It’s really important that those barriers are addressed and parents are made to feel welcome in the school.

 What keeps you motivated to continue teaching?

The students give me so much life. They give me so much energy, as much as it, as much energy and effort as this job requires, particularly when students have several years of growth to make. I get just as much, if not more, appreciation from students. I feel supported at my current school because I’m trusted that the decisions I make are the right ones. It hasn’t always been the case for me but, and I know a lot of teachers, especially teachers of color, are sometimes questioned, ‘Hmm, is that the best thing? Is that the right thing?’ And that can be a difficult situation to be in, because if you feel like you’re being questioned and not supported, then all of the challenges grow and grow. You don’t see the silver lining. So I guess just to phrase it in another way. I am reminded of the growth that my students make and I see the success and I try to focus on that as much as possible. I try to celebrate that with my students and that’s what keeps me motivated.

What are your goals for the new school year and overall as an educator?

Well, we’ve been talking about … I want to do some work around changing schools and school systems to meet the current landscape of the students in the communities. Our schools need to work for families that are in the communities. But what I have seen a lot is the communities change, but the schools stay the same. Policies don’t adapt to meet the needs of our communities. And when that happens, the people who suffer the most are first and foremost the students, and then the families in those communities. And it might be linguistic changes, it might be socioeconomic changes, it might be cultural changes.

But I do want to do some work around how to make grassroots changes because the community should be the biggest source of information that drives a school’s vision. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, almost all of the time, the vision comes from the top, from whatever the district sees is best, whatever the network sees as best. But even within a network, there are so many differences. Even within one city, there are so many differences that aren’t taken into account when there’s a standardized goal, when there’s a standardized approach. And so I guess my goal is to continue to learn how to leverage student voice, parent voice, and the community voice to best meet the needs of those particular communities.

And I’ve bounced around to different schools and I’m hoping to stay here for a while because I think that’s what it takes. You kind of get some agency in your classroom and then eventually the school, and then as you stay long enough, you get to know the community well. And I know I’m going back and forth, but that’s a challenge when there’s a high teacher turnover rate and it just limits your impact when teachers bounce around from school to school for various reasons.

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