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What Women of Color Bring to K-12 Classrooms

Teach For America educators share how their identities as BIPOC women help enhance student learning in innovative, culturally rich ways

Teach For America blog: What Women of Color Bring to K-12 Classrooms

By Alexzandria Cormier-Hill

March 18, 2024

 “It’s not just I who needed a teacher of color—my white classmates also needed one. I think it would have had a big effect on the way that I saw myself, and the way that other kids saw me too.” This is the reflection English teacher Christina Torres (Los Angeles ’09) had when she thought about growing up without a teacher of color. 

Reflecting on Christina’s experience, we took a deeper dive into what happens when women of color occupy K-12 classrooms. Here, meet five Teach For America educators who foster belonging, develop innovative teaching strategies and enhance cultural competency, in large part by tapping into their BIPOC identities. 

Teaching Through A Lens of Innovative Inclusion 

Creating lessons that reflect students' lived experiences. Incorporating culture in stories, music, and movement to speak to different learning styles. These are a few ways BIPOC women challenge stereotypical statistics, deepen understanding, and ignite student engagement.

As a DACA recipient and first-gen college graduate, Yanepsi Alvarado (Massachusetts '17) is driven to create opportunities for her students by advocating for inclusivity in the tech world. “I reflect on the experience of many students,” says Yanepsi. “Not only do I want to question the lack of opportunities for children in our society, but I also want to be part of the change.” Empowered by her students' interest in coding, she founded a Girls Who Code club and helped recruit students for computer science classes through her Spanish classes to attract a diverse range of students. “I am inspired to identify opportunities to engage our students in fields where their talent is in demand and to ensure inclusivity and accessibility for students.”

Expanding her impact, Yanepsi is pursuing a doctorate in Education Leadership with a dissertation focused on determining the most effective strategies to support English Language Learners in Massachusetts to succeed in computer science. She became a facilitator, helping to increase the availability of coding courses for English Learners in Massachusetts. Her advocacy led to collaborations with Microsoft's TEALS Program and recognition from Cognizant and Teach For America for her novel approach to computer science education. Yanepsi's accolades affirm that it's never too late to learn and take risks. “It is an honor to represent the Latinx community in a district where 44% of students identify as Latinx,” she said. And she’s not stopping here. Yanepsi aims to further support underrepresented groups in tech by preparing high schoolers for STEAM degrees.

“I am inspired to identify opportunities to engage our students in fields where their talent is in demand and to ensure inclusivity and accessibility for students.”

Yanepsi Alvarado

Massachusetts Corps Member 2017

Calethia Murray-McKinney (Jacksonville '20) took a note from navigating her own personal experience and decided to teach her Algebra 1 Honors class about financial literacy. With Black and Hispanic 15-year-olds proving to have lower financial literacy rates than their White and Asian counterparts, she decided to put her Bachelors of Business Administration to good use.

“I asked myself what percentage of students know nothing about a checking account?” Calethia reflects. “How to buy a car? How to use a credit card? They start in high school but it’s not a huge conversation. I knew I had to do my part.”

As a result, Calethia created a stock market game for her class. “My students get $100,000 to play with to build and diversify their portfolio,” she said. “They learn how to invest in long-term stock, bonds, and other researchable Fortune 500 companies. The idea piqued my interest immediately because I wish somebody would have done it for me. I teach math anyway, so why not do it for my kids?”

For Jacquinta Nelson (Kansas City '23), leveraging her childhood passion to create culturally immersive learning environments is key to establishing belonging among her students. At a young age, Jacquinta the art of stepping has connected her to her community and history while boosting her self-confidence. “When I was 12, my art teacher, also our youth pastor at the time, said they wanted to put on a step competition. He asked me and my sisters to make a team,” she said. 

As they went on to win the competition, this pivotal moment helped Jacquinta see how teachers could identify, empower and develop the talent in their students. It wasn’t long until she was doing the same for her own students.

While substituting as a City Year corps member, an opportunity arose to teach an elective art class. Seizing the opportunity, Jacquinta developed the school's first art history class on stepping to connect with her students. It turned out to be so much more. “When I first created the class, at that time, I taught 7th, 8th, and 10th graders,” she said “I had a team of 40 kids by myself and their first performance was for a TFA Shark Tank in Kansas City,” and event at which like its namesake television show Shark Tank, corps members, and alumni pitch their ideas to donors interested in funding education initiatives. The donations make it possible for teachers to benefit their students in the ways they believe are most vital, inside and outside of the classroom.

As interest for her class and stepping lessons blossomed, so did her influence. In addition to teaching her class, she is also the founder of an internationally ranked step team, STEP Movement, which teaches students in the greater Kansas City area how to build confidence and camaraderie while living into their culture and history, right now.

Teach For America Kansas City Corps Member Jacquinta Nelson helping her students step in harmony in her STEP Movement class.

Empowering Confident Kids Through Cultural Competence

When women of color incorporate language diversity, cultural context, and intersectional perspectives into lesson plans, students receive a more holistic understanding of the subject matter and foster a sense of cultural pride and identity.

Lydia Yellow Hawk (South Dakota ‘19), who is currently a Public Policy Fellow at TFA’s partner organization Leadership for Educational Equity, was keen on helping children see their culture in its true essence. Lydia shared her experience as a child growing up in a classroom immersed in culture. “When I was in middle school, Sage Fast Dog was our Lakota language teacher and led our drum group. My Lakota teachers always extended their relationship as a relative,” Lydia said. “I always felt comfortable in their classroom. Extending that relationship automatically made me feel comfortable with who I am, where I was, and what I wanted to be.” 

But when Lydia went to college, she realized the community she grew up in wasn’t always accurately reflected in academic literature. She decided to change that. “Seeing myself within these systems as an Indigenous person, as a woman, as a person whose family is going through these traumas, I was able to think about how to find solutions and how to help others.” 

She had her students read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States to interrogate existing systems to improve their environments. This is the foundation to become change-makers. “I had them think critically about the curriculum that was given to us by our school district so they could understand and make meaning of our own history in their own way,” she said.

“Seeing myself within these systems as an Indigenous person, as a woman, as a person whose family is going through these traumas, I was able to think about how to find solutions and how to help others.”

Lydia Yellow Hawk

South Dakota Corps Member 2019

Pi’ikea Kalakau-Baarde (Hawai'i '15), currently a Teach For America  staff member, explains how she made things more relevant for her kids by incorporating students’ real lives in rural areas into her curriculum. In one of her lessons, her class chose to focus their lesson around homelessness. Many of her students were familiar with the concept. “We do have a fair amount of homeless students with huge problems here in Hawai’i,” she said “We had them watch a documentary, a local documentary on our homeless issue and all the controversial sides of it, and then they craft the arguments. Basically, just being an advocate for place-based learning. It's easier for us because Hawaiian culture is really dominant here.”

At Teach For America, we want all of our students to feel that they belong and can bring their full selves into the classroom. While there are significantly positive student outcomes that result from having teachers of color in K-12 classrooms, there is still a largely disproportionate racial disparity among American educators. At Teach For America, however, 40% of 2023 corps members identified as women of color, nearly twice the national average of American educators. 

As we continue to place high importance on diversity to cultivate a sense of belonging, we are working to build a more inclusive and equitable education system for all children, educators, and equity advocates alike. 

Lead with authenticity

Leverage your unique experiences to create an inclusive tomorrow for all students.