How One Alum's Journey as a Queer Educator Helped Him Create Safe Spaces for Students
Andre Zarate is looking to design a school that centers the needs of LGBTQ+ students of color and moves the conversation from surviving in a school space to thriving.
June 15, 2021
Andre Zarate is a teacher, leader, innovator, and edupreneur. He has spent the last eight years teaching in Chicago as a middle school teacher, middle school team lead, instructional coach and curriculum and assessment associate. The foundation of his work has always been on relationship building with students and families, innovation in the classroom, student leadership, identity, and curriculum design. Throughout his career, he has won multiple awards for excellence in teaching and culturally responsive practices, including Illinois State Teacher of the Year Finalist in 2016 and Teach For America Chicago's Alumni Excellence in Teaching Award in 2018. In January 2020, Andre participated in the CICS Education Entrepreneur Fellowship, where he had the opportunity to design his own Microlab school for the city of Chicago. He is looking to design a school (House of Legends) that centers the needs of LGBTQ+ students of color and moves the conversation from surviving in a school space to thriving. He wants to make sure that everyone in schools can show up as their full self. This summer Andre is moving to Washington D.C. to continue teaching, designing, and innovating at the nation's capital. We interviewed him about his experience as a queer educator in Chicago.
What motivates you to work towards making an impact towards educational equity?
I wake up everyday with the motivation of knowing that the future is literally in our hands and in our classrooms. I grew up in Mount Vernon, New York right outside of the Bronx in New York City and my parents had a hard time finding a high quality school. They did whatever it took to make sure that I had a quality education but there were still moments in high school and college where I realized I was not ready. There have been improvements but there are still issues in the education system that are unresolved 10 to 15 years later. When I stand in front of my students, they remind me of my friends and myself. When I speak to their families, I think of my parents and the dreams they have for their children. Especially during the dual pandemic of COVID-19 and systemic racism, I am grounded in the idea that all students deserve a high quality education and I believe the moment to reground, innovate, and reimagine education is here.
What is the Z Factor Project?
The Z Factor Project (@the.z.factor.project) was originally created as a MicroLab school centered on the needs of students of color who identify as LGBTQ+. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, the MicroLab hasn’t been realized; however the Z Factor Project still exists through several iterations. Having a space for LGBTQ+ students is incredibly important because the freedom to exist as exactly who you want to be is more than just curriculum mandates and policies. It requires a space, culture, adults, and other people who believe in a mission. As I was in the process of designing the MicroLab school, one of my mentors said to me, “Andre, the innovation of your school is found within your story.” I think about myself as a student and countless others who wish to have been able to show up fully earlier than we did. The Z Factor Project is now showcasing my journey as a queer educator on a journey to self-love, self-acceptance, and joy. This journey includes one day opening my venture House of Legends, which started at CICS Education Entrepreneur Fellowship.
“Having a space for LGBTQ+ students is incredibly important because the freedom to exist as exactly who you want to be is more than just curriculum mandates and policies. It requires a space, culture, adults, and other people who believe in a mission.”
In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing or important issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community today?
We have made some strides on issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community but we still have a long way to go. The big wins are great but they are the bare minimum. The pandemic has amplified many issues across our society, including in the LGBTQ+ community. I often think about the students who are at home and yearning for a place of community and safety. We need to create more spaces that serve students and people who identify as LGBTQ+. While there may be LGBTQ+ communities and resources available, they are not always friendly or safe for queer people who also identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color. This is why I wanted to start creating that space for that in our schools.
You have been involved in the Chicago educational landscape throughout your career, what have you seen evolve and change? What has stayed the same? What about these things excites you?
The biggest change I’ve seen since I started here in 2013 is the amount of students who are speaking up and fighting back. I have seen many of my former students participating at protests and marches. I know many participate in canvassing and knocking on doors, reminding their neighbors to vote. I am so inspired, motivated, and encouraged by the work of our young people. They know that the future is in their hands and they are going out there to do the work. This excites me because I’ve seen a lot of growth since 2013. Even the shy students are standing up and being leaders of change. We need more of them in our world.
“ I am so inspired, motivated, and encouraged by the work of our young people.”
What advice would you give to community members who are seeking to grow their leadership and impact in education and the Chicago Community?
At the CICS Education Entrepreneur Fellowship, my mentor Caroline Hill (Founder of the 228Accelerator), introduced me to the EquityXDesign framework when I was creating and designing House of Legends. The steps are 1.) Design at the margins, 2.) Start with yourself, 3.) Cede power, 4.) Make the invisible visible, 5.) and Speak the future. The first two have especially resonated with me. As we continue to reimagine, innovate, and design spaces for the future, we need to make sure that we know ourselves deeply and we need to include all community voices in our work. These design principles have made me a better leader.
What do you think we can do to diversify the teacher leadership pipelines in our region so that more students have teachers that are representative of the diversity of this region?
We need to make sure that we are intentionally looking for future teachers of color on college campuses and we need to provide more support systems and resources for teachers, including mentorship. We need to make it easier for teachers of color to find these support systems and resources to avoid burnout and teachers leaving the profession altogether. There needs to be more intentional programming and recruiting for teachers of color to become leaders.
Teachers also need to be paid more and receive more respect in our society. The certifications and degrees required to teach can be extremely costly. If we want more teachers and leaders that represent the diversity of the region, we need to fully invest in them, their leadership, and their ideas.
We are now over a year into this pandemic, how has the last year changed the way you view your work, your mission, and the impact you want to make?
Something I knew before the pandemic and was amplified throughout this last school year is sustainability. I had to set really important boundaries on myself to make sure I kept my sanity and catered to my mental health. At the start of my teaching career, I was a workaholic and pushed myself to limits that were extremely unhealthy. The pandemic actually allowed me to put a lot of those learnings in practice like setting boundaries, saying no, there is tomorrow, and making time for myself. Doing this has made me a better educator and a better leader. I realized that I have to listen to my body every single day. This is something the pandemic helped me practice in isolation. As the world opens up again, I will be continuing to do this in my work.
It also made me think more about how my students were dealing with virtual learning and the impact it had on their mental health. My students gave me a lot of grace as a teacher and I had to recognize the same in my students. I learned so much from working with my students and my family. It made me realize that I want to create a school that includes their voices and changes with the lessons I’ve learned. It continually made me think about what resources and necessities the students must have in order to thrive.
What about your work with Z Factor brings you joy?
Little Andre would have loved to be himself in childhood. My younger self did not get to truly express himself and the Z Factor Project is helping me reclaim that expression. I am excited to make work that allows young people to be exactly who they are. I am excited about creating this space and participating in a movement to make sure that LGBTQ+ students can thrive in a school setting. My favorite quote is, “When you show up as yourself, you give permission for others to do the same.” The Z Factor Project and House of Legends are both projects that showcase my healing in practice.
Ten years from now, what is something you would want your people you work with to remember about your work in education, with students, and with Z factor?
As my students were informing me of their next steps, I saw the absolute glow on their faces and how proud they are of themselves. I am extremely honored that many of the families and students from my classes continue to update me about their lives. I see the impact in that way. I want my students, families, and communities to see me as someone who was passionate, loving, and caring in the classroom.
For the future, I’m hoping that my impact branches out across the nation by creating, designing, and innovating spaces to be more inclusive for LGBTQ+ students. Follow the journey on Instagram @the.z.factor.project!