Connecticut’s efforts to recruit and retain more educators of color are making progress thanks to a national program that’s now expanding to 14 school districts around Connecticut. PDK International’s Educators Rising program uses a grow your own teacher recruitment strategy, embedding education curriculum into high school classes and afterschool clubs, and 52 percent of current members are students of color.
During Connecticut’s first statewide Educators Rising Conference last week, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes said, “When I was National Teacher of the Year I attended an Educators Rising conference in Boston and thought, ‘This is the kind of program, mentors, and opportunities I wish I would have had.'”
Hayes joined U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Governor Ned Lamont, CCSU President Zulma Toro, Interim CSCU President Dr. Jane Gates, Acting Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker, Education Committee Co-Chairs Sen. Douglas McCrory and Rep. Robert Sanchez, 2021 Teacher of the Year Rochelle Brown, and others in addressing high school students during the virtual event. Students also heard from panels of high school and college students and educators, and Educators Rising members had the chance to take part in performance-based competitive events in which aspiring educators demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and leadership in education.
“Your story is my story,” Hayes told the students. “I knew early on all that all I wanted to be was a teacher, and I just needed people to help me get there.”
CEA, which was a sponsor of the Educators Rising Conference, has long advocated for the state to take additional measures to attract and retain teachers of color.
In testimony on a bill on the subject that has since been voted out of the Education Committee, CEA Vice President Tom Nicholas said that CEA has recently received a grant to promote clubs and education courses for high school students interested in becoming educators.
“CEA supports innovative teacher preparation programs that attract more aspiring teachers of color into our public schools, particularly when they help aspiring teachers meet high standards of certification and address persistent institutional and financial barriers,” he said.
Deseriah Castillo, a New Britain High School graduate and Educators Rising participant, is now in her first year of college. (Connecticut first piloted Educators Rising in New Britain and is now expanding it to other districts.) “Ed Rising has given me the opportunity to give back to the elementary school I went to,” she said. “It’s helped guide me through the path of education and motivated me to become an educator in the district I came from.”
Castillo gave a speech at the National Educators Rising Conference in Dallas in 2019, in which she said that when she started high school she had her heart set on becoming a lawyer.
“Growing up I never had a normal childhood or a loving household. My mother was a drug addict and my father was in the prison system,” Castillo said. “My great-grandmother was there for me, and school was my safe zone.”
An internship working with elementary students gave Castillo the inspiration to change career paths. “I saw myself in those students. I realized how far I’d come,” she said. “Many children in inner cities lead harder lives than those who don’t. They need teachers who can understand what they’re going through.”
CEA Educational Issues Specialist Michele O’Neill told the high school students that the CEA Aspiring Educators program can provide them with important opportunities when they reach college. “The aspiring educators program through CEA dovetails with what you’ve learned through Educators Rising,” she said.
“When you enter college, you want to keep gaining experience in and out of the classroom,” she continued. “I encourage you to join the CEA Aspiring Educators program at your college or university. You get to meet people from across the state, and it helps with gaining experience and connecting you with those people who can help you get a job when you graduate.”
New Britain high school students who are currently taking part in Educators Rising said that the program’s classes are the best part of their day.
“We get to help out in the preschool setting, and I always look forward to it,” one said. “The classes are helping me become a teacher and encouraging me to continue in the program.”
2021 Connecticut Teacher of the Year and Windsor kindergarten teacher Rochelle Brown gave the keynote address that concluded the conference.
“You must be the light that your students need, that the world needs,” she told the high school students. “Educators are responsible for lighting the beacon for students so they can light a beacon for others.”
She encouraged students to think about how they will one day plant seeds within each of their own students. “The secret is, the students who seem the most challenging and least receptive to your efforts may be those who need you the most.”
Brown concluded, “Once you are an educator, your role is not limited to the classroom or school building. We’re the people at the very heart of our communities, and we have the power to make them stronger.”