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Teacher Spotlight: Third-grade special ed teacher Maria Duarte seeks to educate her Camino Nuevo school community about LGBTQ inclusion, encouraging students to become change agents

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | September 11, 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.

Maria Duarte

*Updated

With the purpose of promoting an inclusive school culture, where all students feel safe, Maria Duarte is leading a study group at her school that is incorporating LGBTQ literature. She believes that by integrating such reading material into her classroom even her younger students can become agents of social change.

Duarte, 32, is a third-grade special education teacher at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy Kayne Siart Campus, a K-8 public charter school located near downtown Los Angeles. The school serves an overwhelming majority of Latino students from immigrant families just like Duarte, who emigrated from Mexico to the United States at age 5 with her parents and settled in L.A. She grew up attending public schools and then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA and later, her master’s in special education.

For four years, she worked as a teacher’s assistant at another charter school until she got hired at Camino Nuevo, where she has been teaching for the last three years.

Last year, she participated in The Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College, looking at how gender roles are expressed in literature. She knew that her classroom’s book inventory was “very heteronormative and not quite as diverse,” so she started the study groups to include LGBTQ literature.

“I just think kids having books that either they can relate to personally or that allows them to relate to people who are different from them is a crucial way to start to have those conversations,” Duarte said. “We framed it as, it’s actually about how to create an inclusive, safe environment for all students and how are we promoting that students also go out and be social agents of change when they’re older.”

LA School Report asked Duarte 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 her goals for next school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s the main purpose of these study groups?

It’s a group of five other teachers that are interested in learning more about the topic and kind of going through an inquiry cycle to develop our own practices as educators to then impact students. And so early on in that year, we started to also explore topics of LGBTQ identity and characters. And so what we wanted to do is really question and have other educators question the books that they have in their library. And then question what kind of narratives as educators, we’re valuing. Because as a teacher, when I choose to do a read-aloud about a topic, a student sees that as a valid narrative. So what stories are we exposing our students to, what are we showing how to value. And then also what stories and what books are we not reading in our classrooms because not reading those books is also sending a message to our students.

If you think about the amount of suicide that happen for LGBTQ-plus youth, it’s some scary number. And if you think about life expectancy for trans people, it’s also scary and then you have to ask yourself, what is it about our society that’s making a group of people feel isolated? What as educators can we do so that those feelings of isolation go away or at least diminish a bit? So I just think kids having books that either they can relate to personally or that allow them to relate to people who are different from them is a crucial way to start to have those conversations.

How do the study groups work for the younger students versus the ones in higher grades?

That was another concern that we had heard about families: how do you make this topic or this theme age-appropriate, what are my kindergarten students going to be learning about as opposed to middle school students? … So what the study group did was we took, we broke down the grade center, grade-level span. And so obviously, if you’re in a kindergarten class, you’re not going to have, you might not be reading about a thing that’s a little bit more sophisticated, like identity, or having a character who is transgender might not be as developmentally appropriate in kindergarten. But instead, something that’s definitely appropriate. What is already happening a lot in our kindergarten classes is that they talk a lot about family structure. However, when family structure is talked about a lot of times in the lower grades it’s always fairly heteronormative. So we talked about how what they could be doing is also talking about how there are different family structures that sometimes include a mom and a mom or dad and a dad and how those are appropriate conversations to have at that age.

And then for the older students, they’re more complex. We got a lot of books for parents to see. So I think a lot of the pushback was just speaking from a sense of not really knowing. So once we collaborated and take those workshops and do stuff like ask us questions, read through the book, see how we thought about it being developmentally appropriate and also tying it into our standards, they felt much more comfortable.

What would you say are some of the major challenges that your students face in their community?

We do have a high population of English learners at our school and I would say that, especially in recent years, one big issue that has been happening to our students has to do with immigration. We’ve had a lot of, unfortunately, family separations due to deportation this year. So I would say that’s one big area or topic that’s been really impacting the community that I serve. We have also thought about how we can be sensitive to the things that are going on outside of our community and the classroom. So what books or what things can I talk about in the classroom that allow our students to process something so traumatic as a family separation. What spaces are we offering in that classroom so that kids feel safe and feel they have a space to talk about those things if they’re affecting them? We do have a really awesome family coordinator at our site and she does a lot of collaborating with outside agencies to find resources for families. So she’s also been instrumental in helping us think through what we need to do.

When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher?

I think it definitely started when I was younger. I remember always wanting to play the teacher. I just thought it was so cool. I just remember always being so fascinated by the teacher and always looking up. I think specifically my fifth-grade teacher, I always remember the connection that she had with all the students. And how safe I felt in her classroom. Since early on I always thought it was so cool to get to work with people, especially young children, and being in an environment where it was joyful. I think that always drove me to teach.

Is there any memory that stands out for you most from your first day of teaching? Or your first year? How was it?

I remember just how I was so excited and was so ready to teach that lesson. And I remember how one of the students was pushing back and I remember feeling, ‘OK, what is happening? Why is the student acting that way?’ And I remember just being so naive in the beginning. I feel like my lens for really difficult moments with students is so different now. Now, I think about what is happening with this student? What is their behavior communicating to me? What is it that they need? But I remember that first day when I first walked in the classroom, I remember not having that knowledge, I guess. And I remember just thinking this is hard. I thought this was going to be way easier, but it was hard. I always think about that and then, my first year professionally teaching, I always think about how much I grew as an educator that year and also how much my students grew.

What do you think is most misunderstood about your job? What’s the biggest difference you see in people’s perception about teaching?

I think the most common misconception is, I always hear, ‘Oh, you work with kids. It must be so easy or your job isn’t that stressful. You do fun activities and do this and that.’ And I feel it’s always just so downplayed how much we actually do in the teaching profession. Because I always see my job as I’m not just teaching content about math or reading or whatever. That’s not my big goal when I’m in front of a classroom of students. My big goal is what skills and what critical thinking abilities am I allowing my students to develop? How is this going to make them citizens that go off into the world and can make an impact? And I feel so many times when people think about teaching and the teaching profession, they don’t include that aspect.

What has been your best moment or best day as a teacher? What’s one of your proudest accomplishments?

I think this past year, one of my best memories and honestly my whole career, it was working with this student who had dyslexia. So, she was reading below grade level and I remember how that started to really impact the image she had of herself. And I remember having a conversation with my co-teacher and just really thinking about what can we do for her as a person that’s a learner to make sure that she feels confident and empowered about herself and doesn’t feel bad because she’s struggling to read. So we first talked to her mom and we presented this idea of having her and I (teach her classmates) about dyslexia. So that would mean having a conversation with her and explaining to her what dyslexia was. And so her and I would do research on dyslexia and what it was and famous people who have dyslexia. I just remember her being transformed by that experience because before that she didn’t understand, she didn’t know that she had dyslexia, and that that was the reason that she was having a difficult time. But I think knowing that she had dyslexia makes her feel, OK, it’s not that there’s something wrong with me, it’s just a learning difficulty I have. So the last day of school, she presented to the whole class about dyslexia and it was just such an awesome moment to see her feel empowered in front of her peers, and also see how the other students were so curious and wanted to know more and were super supportive of her. So I think that has been one of the coolest moments (for me) as an educator.

What do you think your school organization, the school district, even this state, could do better to support educators?

I guess I always think about finances and resources. How are we equipping our classrooms with the resources, with the money that schools need in order to properly be able to give students a rich education? So I think about — since I’m a special ed teacher, but I co-teach in classrooms because we have an inclusive setting. So, I’m very grateful to my administrators because they view it as an important thing in our school that we’re inclusive and they definitely feel or they value inclusive education so they therefore value being able to have special education teachers in the classroom. But I have also seen the struggle to get special education teachers so that we’re each only co-teaching in one grade level because the more co-teaching happens, the more we’re able to impact students. However, sometimes because they’re isn’t enough money in the budget or resources for us to pull from, it’s kind of hard to do all the work and impact the students in the way in which you want to impact them. If you’re limited, if I have to go and co-teach in multiple grade levels and multiple classrooms, it limits my ability to be very personable and impactful for one classroom. So I feel that’s been the hardest thing.

What do you think should be changed if something should be changed in the process of entering the teaching profession? Was it hard for you? Was it easy? What do you think will make it easier for new teachers to come into the profession?

I think definitely something that I noticed and feel very passionate about actually is when I went and I did my preparation program with the focus on special education, it was very different from the preparation that my colleagues, who are general education teachers, have gotten. So it’s challenging to serve all students. When you think about how general ed teachers and special education teachers are taught, I think they’re two separate things. So there needs to be much more collaboration. I feel that separating us from the start, that’s challenging for all teachers to feel successful teaching a variety of students.

What can parents do to help you in doing a better job?

Well, I think parents should just always be open-minded and want to collaborate with teachers. I love when our families are able to come — and even if it’s sit in on our lesson — because then that helps them know how to support their student at home. And then the same thing when we collaborate with parents … having a better understanding of that student as an individual, because families know those kids like nobody else. So I feel that collaboration that exists with teachers and families is just as important for us the teachers as it is for parents. I feel when those two things come together, it’s really powerful.

As a charter school teacher, is there anything you wish people better understood about charters in general?

Yeah, I feel recently there’s been a lot of backlash to charter schools, and I just want the narrative to not be about why charter schools are bad, but about why any school is failing. It’s not just about charter schools, it’s about any school. Because at the end of the day, we’re also a public organization that serves all students. It’s not necessarily the charter school versus public school mentality that I think has kind of come out from the (teacher) strike.

Do you have any particular goals for next school year?

Yes, so next school year, we’ll just continue to work with this study group, something that we kind of left off as a next step is also studying and thinking through this idea of toxic masculinity. I think we’ve been seeing this research and thinking about gender roles, LGBTQ issues, how is that going to translate to student impact? How are we going to disseminate all that information that we learn to make teachers feel prepared or ready to have conversations with their students? And then, what is the outcome for students? Because at the end of the day, all of this studying and researching things is really for the impact it’s going to have on students. Is this going to create critical thinkers? Is this going to impact students to go out and have social change (happen) out in the world? So I think those are cool next steps.

For me, I always just want to continue learning about how to serve the student, not just academically, but also socially and emotionally. … I’m seeing that in a lot of our student population, it’s not as simple as teaching academic content, but it’s also, how are you supporting students socially and emotionally to feel as safe and successful as they can your classroom?


* This article has been updated to correct that Duarte was not recruited and placed through Teach for America.

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