Enriching Educational Experiences through Cultural Diversity

At a young age, I became conscious of issues of equity. My family emigrated from El Salvador, a country that was torn by a civil war caused by inequities in its government’s system, in 1981. Being Latina and going through the U.S. public educational system in three different states allowed me to experience firsthand how issues of equity impact students across all contexts. With our family’s moves, I went from attending a school that was predominantly comprised of students of color, to a school with mostly white and Latinx students, to a predominantly white high school.

Little did I know at the age of five, that a decade would pass between the only two times I learned from a teacher who looked like me. My kindergarten teacher, Mr. Hernández would be the only Latinx teacher I would have until my sophomore year of high school when I had Señor Furio as my Spanish IV teacher. Not having many teachers who looked like more like me, or knew much about my culture, has shaped me as a teacher.

Reflecting on the lack of teachers of color in my own educational experience reaffirmed my desire to pursue a career in education. It’s no secret that the U.S. teaching profession is mostly made up of white teachers and doesn’t accurately reflect the diversity of our students. In Wisconsin, the disproportionality is huge, with 91% of teachers being white, despite only 70% of students being white. Having teachers of color can profoundly impact both students of color and white students, helping to reduce racism and dispel deeply maintained stereotypes.

Growing up, I often heard of the high dropout rates of Latinx students. By being a part of the Latinx community, I was confident that I could leverage my cultural background to build strong relationships with students and families. While all families are unique, and my Latinx experience does not represent all experiences, many cultural aspects have impacted my teaching and have served as a bridge in relationship building.

An essential component that has been instrumental in my ability to communicate with families and students is being a native Spanish speaker. I want students to see the beauty of being bilingual. Far too often, multilingual students have been told to only speak English. Yet, many people wish they could speak another language. Being bilingual has impacted my ability to empower students to be proud of their heritage and language, while helping them strengthen their English skills.

Students walk into our classrooms with a wealth of knowledge and experiences. My culture has allowed me to be more effective at tapping into students’ funds of knowledge to engage them in learning. For example, whether it is food, music, or experiences about moving to a different country, I can use my cultural knowledge to connect with students and create a space where they can share their culture and experiences.

Leveraging my culture has benefited students of color and white students who, in most cases, had not had a teacher of color before. It allows them to learn about my culture and experiences. For some of my students, meeting me was the first time they heard of the country of El Salvador and met someone who was born there.

Having an immigrant experience has allowed me to bring a lens into my teaching career that has impacted not only my classroom but my ability to eliminate barriers for families and students. I am very familiar with the challenges that many students and families face as they try to navigate an unfamiliar school system. I feel fortunate that I can use my cultural background and experiences to empower students and families. My hope is that educators from a different culture feel supported to leverage their culture to positively impact students and families.

As a child immigrant from El Salvador, Sarahi Monterrey recognizes the pivotal role teachers play in students’ lives. Sarahi’s approach to teaching embodies a genuine belief that every student has the ability to learn and grow, and every educator has an obligation to tear down barriers that stand in the way of students. Sarahi has been teaching in the School District of Waukesha for the past 14 years of her 19-year teaching career. She is currently an English Learner teacher at Waukesha South High School.  Sarahi was named Wisconsin’s 2018-2019 High School Teacher of the year.  She was selected as Wisconsin’s 2019 State Teacher of the Year representative to the National Teacher of the Year program and is the first Latina in the state of Wisconsin to have this honor.


Peachy & Imperfect: An Ode to My Students

“You are ‘peach’ perfect!” – I exclaimed, moved by the emotionally fulfilling rendition of one of the choral pieces at my recent rehearsal. Loud giggling echoed throughout the walls of our school auditorium and I realized, once again, how “imperfect” my pronunciation was. “Oh, no…” I thought, and quickly recovered to hide my slip of the tongue: “Yes! It was peachy!”

As I continued my rehearsal, I marveled at the sound of my students’ voices. I imagined a beautiful mosaic where each student represented a special color that made the entire artwork unique and cohesive. Nabhitha, an Indian girl who struggled to maintain her individuality while staying connected with her culture. Alex, a transgender student who had suffered from bullying in middle school. Elena, a Russian immigrant student whose mother died when she was twelve… This mosaic included different cultural and life experiences of my students, highlighting each of their identity. I thought about my own identity, the one I struggled to maintain, trying to fit in and to be “just like everybody else.”

As a first-year immigrant teacher for whom English was a third language, at times I felt insecure and flustered. A culture clash was inevitable every time I walked into my classroom, and my students did not try to hide their discomfort related to my accent. That year, my music theory class was full of rebellious senior boys, some of whom dreamed of becoming rock band drummers, others hoped for an easy “A” and yawned non-stop during the first period. It did not take long before one of the boys found a way to disrupt my class. I felt powerless and, quite frankly, betrayed. But soon, something happened that influenced my entire perspective on teaching: my son Areg went to preschool.

It was Halloween, and Areg could not wait to show everyone his new shirt with the image of a skeleton in front. He also needed to share that the skeleton could actually light up in the dark – they wouldn’t be able to see that otherwise during the day, right? The only problem was: he couldn’t express himself in English. You see, my husband and I decided to raise our children bilingual, so we did not speak English at home. Areg’s English was limited to what he had learned from watching cartoons.

That morning, he asked me: “Mom, how do you say this in English: ‘Скелет светится ночью?’”[1] I answered: “The skeleton lights up at night.” So as he walked to school, holding hands with his dad, he kept repeating over and over: “The skeleton lights up at night,” “The skeleton lights up at night”…. As soon as he walked into his classroom, he shouted: “The skeleton lights up at night!”

A few weeks later, during a parent-teacher conference, Areg’s teacher expressed suspicions that he might have a learning disability: following directions had been a challenge for Areg. “Could this be the result of his limited English?” I asked. She was speechless. Areg was never identified as an ESL student, so she never thought that he might have a language barrier. In fact, Areg worked really hard to hide his struggles, having developed a database of memorized phrases and expressions he heard on TV to then use them as needed, just like he did with the skeleton phrase.

That parent-teacher conference was a revelation: I wondered how many Aregs I had in my class, struggling but not willing to share, even working hard to hide something? It was my job to listen, understand, and connect. So, I began learning about my students’ interests and life aspirations. I listened to their stories and grew a passion for working with them. One of them was Matt, a senior from my theory class. Matt came from a broken family and preferred staying after school rather than going home. We would discuss the staccato riffs by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” or the remarkable chord progression in The Eagle’s “Hotel California” for hours! I grew to love these kids, and they loved me in return. Suddenly, quitting was not an option: these kids needed me, but I needed them even more. They cultivated a calling that I didn’t know I had – to be a teacher. They helped me find my own identity.

My quest began in Armenia, an ancient country in the Caucasus, and I became a refugee in the United States, by way of Russia. My husband, my two kids, and I were all born in different countries. Yet, I am an American. My “newfound” identity inspired me to create a series of concerts, “Around the World in 80 Minutes” in which each student represented their culture and language, displaying their humanity and empathy. I was proud of my students for using their language and musical skills to express their identity and to build character. As I listened in awe to my students’ stories, I realized that I was finally free to be the person I have been avoiding to be: myself.


[1] Phonetically, “Skelet svetitsya nochyu?”

Argine Safari, 2017 New Jersey’s State Teacher, teaches music at Pascack Valley High School and is active as a speaker, presenter, choral clinician, and performer, having performed in major concert halls including Carnegie Hall and MSG. She earned her degrees from Melikian College of Music in Armenia, Moscow Conservatory in Russia, Brooklyn College/CUNY, Rutgers University, and is currently a PhD candidate at Walden University. Argine’s students earned numerous awards and accolades, traveling with her from Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles to Canada, Italy and Ireland, where their Irish song renditions were played on the National Radio. Argine is a Grammy nominee and a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher who conducted research and taught at the University of the Arts in Helsinki, Finland. Argine’s article on innovative teaching was published in Moscow in 2019, and in May 2020, she was featured in Dr. Bilha Fish’s book Invincible Women: Conversations with 21 Inspiring and Successful American Immigrants. Argine’s most favorite thing in the world is transforming the lives of her students through the power of music. www.arginesafari.com  

Thinking Extreme

Educators at all levels are inherently linked by dynamic waves of achievement and despair that radiate through our complex profession. While I agree that all careers have ups and downs, the challenge of balancing thirty energy-infused sixth graders one minute with the moping, disengaged math students they morph into fifteen minutes later would challenge any professional. Yet, educators know these rapid adaptations are part of what makes education more than a career; actually, it is a thinking-on-your feet, life passion.

Given the complexities of classrooms and learners, it is not surprising that beneficial professional trainings for teachers generally come from veteran educators. Schools are full of teacher mentors and mentees, formal and informal, who share knowledge, techniques and instructional insights daily. We use mentoring as a means of passing on the art of teaching, which cannot be learned adequately in teacher preparation classes.

In recent years, I have been fortunate to expand mentoring into a second career as an educational consultant. I know there are many paths into teacher entrepreneurship, so trust that there is no perfect plan for consulting success. Similar to the classroom, the work of educating educators is full of successes and disappointments. My consulting venture has been guided by a few essential realizations:

  1. Find Your Passion: First and foremost, joy is a huge part of the educator experience. Skilled educators find a driving passion in this work and spend years fine-tuning their selected expertise. For me, this passion is analyzing the techniques and strategies used by effective rural teachers and presenting them with clear purpose and function to student and teacher groups. I love thinking about the sequence of steps needed to embed critical thinking across content areas and I believe this thinking growth happens best when both teachers and students understand the process. In addition, I use visual mapping to motivate my own creative thinking. While I am still searching for the best way to bridge visual mapping into my professional development workshops, I am convinced it is a critical part of my driving passion.
  2. Refine Your Vision: Good educators enjoy many aspects of education, but successful teacher entrepreneurs focus their professional expertise. Typically, classroom teachers and administrators are looking for specific and productive ideas to implement as a means of addressing identified weaknesses in the teaching and learning fabric of their schools. By developing specific areas of expertise, consultants connect more concretely with their workshop participants. In my case, I was a rural student, K-12, and have taught in rural and rural remote school districts for twenty years. My expertise is based in rural teaching responsibilities: everything from managing four class preps per semester to serving as the sole teacher in a high school English department. The challenges of rural remote teachers are quite different than those of teachers in more urban areas, so it makes sense for me to target my consulting services towards the rural educator population I understand well.
  3. Know the Research: Research studies are an essential part of expanding academic knowledge. However, locating, investigating and digesting current research is a part of professional growth that few K-12 educators can fit into their contracted time. Classroom teachers rely on consultant-led trainings to provide updated, research-based information. Be ready to fill in this research gap for teachers. For example, I first began using visual maps as a means of note-taking more than twenty years ago, when there was almost no research in visual thinking as a mainstream learning approach. Now, studies into the power of visualization are published weekly, from all areas of the globe. Knowing the research has helped me strengthen my stance on visual mapping as a daily note-taking strategy for K-12 classrooms.
  4. Balance Thinking and Practical Use: When I am training teachers, I keep in mind that as soon as teachers leave my workshop they will return to classrooms, ready to face a plethora of unexpected learning situations. As a veteran teacher, I know understanding the theories behind educational design is important in defining how teaching and learning works. Of equal importance is equipping teachers with ideas on what to do in the classroom to strengthen teaching and learning. For my consulting work to be relevant to the needs of teachers, I provide concrete strategy materials as well as facilitate deep conversations on why the strategies are effective.
  5. Stay Grounded: Given the speed at which learner generations change, be aware that each year out of the classroom impacts the applicability of your ideas to classroom situations. Maintain diverse connections around the field of education to keep your expertise relevant. Given the narrow time frames for rural professional development workshops, I still teach full-time and work as a consultant during the summer, on school breaks and use personal leave days at times. Teachers appreciate that my workshop examples are grounded in actual classroom experiences.
  6. Project Energy and Inspiration: The most important role teacher entrepreneurs fill in the profession is providing positive energy, motivation and inspiration to the educators they influence. The education field faces real challenges in addressing low teacher retention rates and high levels of teacher burn-out. Every educator and teacher entrepreneur can contribute to the flow of positive and reflective dialogue in our profession. Start by contributing your voice; your unique talents and insights are sure to inspire others.

Karen Toavs has been working in the field of education for more than twenty years, as a secondary educator as well as an educational consultant at every level. She specializes in supporting educators in rural remote locations, which is well suited to her own classroom experiences in North Dakota and Montana. Karen is the 2011 North Dakota Teacher of the Year as well as being a 2012 NEA Foundation Global Fellow. In addition to remaining active in secondary teaching, Karen owns The Thinking Extreme LLC, which provides on-site training in literacy scaffolding strategies (reading, writing, research, technology integration and presentation), curriculum development and school improvement/accreditation systems for rural K-12 schools as well as higher education institutions. www.thethinkingextreme.com

Less Tech, More Chalk: How an Entrepreneurial Spirit Shapes Learning Culture

My niece was so starstruck she could barely speak.

“Mommy,” she whispered, tugging on my sister’s shirt as she gazed up in awe. “That’s her!”

This five-year-old was rendered speechless by an unlikely celebrity: her kindergarten teacher. Though my niece started kindergarten on Zoom, Ms. Coyne had ignited in her such a love of school that seeing her in person truly felt like seeing Doc McStuffins herself striding down the hall.

As a former teacher, I witnessed my colleagues inspire this type of love and admiration in their students every year. But I also watched with growing despair as these educators, talented and transformational as they were, were burning out and leaving the profession.

As teachers, we have to learn how to solve seemingly intractable problems with creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. We have to learn from our mistakes, commit to continuous improvement, and push ourselves every day to meet our goals. These happen to be the same skills that entrepreneurs need to launch and sustain their businesses. Armed with that knowledge, I launched — Burn-in Mindset — which aims to help the best educators at risk of burnout reconnect with their passion so that they choose to stay in the job with the same energy and drive that made them so effective in the first place.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked with principals nationwide to support their top teachers through an evidence-based coaching program that helps them learn new skills and leverage their existing talents to deepen their teaching practice, improve their wellbeing, and catalyze student achievement.

What helps isn’t rocket science, but it is science. Teachers who routinely share the best part of their day, experience more gratitude. Teachers who treat themselves like elite athletes have the energy to wake up early the next day. And teachers who don’t interpret burnout symptoms as a sign of personal weakness experience less shame.

These shifts have a domino effect in school communities. As school leaders and teachers become re-inspired by their work and their students, kids feel that energy and feed off of it to engage more deeply in their own learning.

Soon enough, the entire culture at the school has shifted. Teachers and kids find more joy throughout the day, and that joy spreads through each and every hallway.

The pandemic, of course, made this infinitely harder. Teachers who were already feeling overwhelmed were suddenly adapting to unprecedented circumstances, scrambling to learn new technology, support their students through trauma, and manage their own anxieties. The principals I worked with feared an exodus of incredible teachers that would devastate their schools.

We must try to stop that from happening. A principal in Camden, New Jersey, focused on socioemotional support immediately, having meals and laptops delivered to students and connecting kids to mental health resources.

In San Jose, another principal feared what would happen if student accountability disappeared and kids lost all the hard-earned progress they’d made throughout the year. She got to work reimagining academics, devising ways to assess reading levels remotely, inspire kids to log on to virtual school each day, and incentivize online goals to keep them engaged.

As the year went on, it turned out that regardless of where each principal started, the schools that had the strongest culture of learning figured out how to prioritize both socioemotional wellness and academics. They did that by thinking creatively and refusing to throw in the towel even on the hardest days.

One teacher invited local celebrities into his “Zoom Room” to showcase his kids’ learning and make them feel special. Another teacher cultivated relationships with her students by emailing them a poem each morning with a personal note explaining how her interpretation applied to the state of the world. A principal turned the daily staff huddle into a crash course on psychological skills to help teachers survive and thrive.

In 2021, the word entrepreneur sparks images of startups and software. But to me, being an entrepreneur means helping educators transform the way they think about their work to ignite an ongoing culture of growth and learning. My favorite entrepreneurs are the teachers who met their students in their driveways to do word problems in sidewalk chalk, who created Zoom lessons so engaging and fun that their five-year-old charges fell in love with school through a screen.

I spent the pandemic combating burnout by cultivating its opposite, helping educators realize that they don’t always need to look to the innovations of others to do their jobs well. Flexibility, resilience, and creativity are what drive the very best teachers I know. When they have the support to tap into those powers, the possibilities for themselves and their students are boundless.

Julia King Pool is a former educator, the 2013 DC Teacher of the Year, and founder of Burn-in Mindset, an organization focused on reducing teacher and leader burnout. The Burn-in Mindset coaching program works with high-performing teachers and school leaders and utilizes components of positive psychology to reignite educators’ passion for their work. Through one-on-one coaching, Burn-in Mindset helps schools retain their top talent, reduce symptoms of burnout, and increase teacher morale.