Truth and Excellence

Teachers bringing their best


"I am a role model, a leader, a father figure," says Antonio "Tone" Morton, a Cleveland High School special education teacher.

"I can create a classroom where people love being," says Will Powell, a resource teacher at Chief Sealth International High School. 

“I have a passion for dual language education and a love for teaching social studies." says Carlos Garcia, a fifth-grade teacher at a Spanish-English dual-language school in the Bellevue School District. “It is important for students to learn from multiple perspectives and get the full story when learning about our history.”

"Leading is like having a buffet of food. What is it you need? Let's eat together, let's grow together," says Salvador Gomez, who teaches Spanish and culture to middle schoolers in the Highline School District

Morton and Powell completed a master's in education in UW’s Special Education Teacher Education Program (TEP) and Garcia and Gomez completed a master’s in teaching in UW’s Elementary Education TEP program. In addition to influencing and inspiring students in the classroom, these leader-educators also changed the TEP programs for the better.

Welcoming, Hearing, Seeing

When Powell was a sophomore in high school, he finally had a class he loved. It was a Spanish class, and it wasn't easy. "I felt respected," he says. "I enjoyed the environment. The teacher had high expectations." It made him imagine what school could have been like for him and his friends if they had felt seen and valued in all their classes.

"I was put on this earth to motivate them," Morton says of his work with young people after describing being supported at home but doubted at school. When he ran after-school programs, enrolling hundreds of students, a teacher encouraged him to go further. "She saw more in me than I saw in myself," he says. First, he became a paraeducator, helping kids who struggled to understand math. Then he connected with the Academy for Rising Educators (ARE), going on to UW so he could do more. "I'm connecting resources, building relationships, making change and changing the narrative," says Morton.

"There's just not many teachers like us," says Powell. "By unapologetically coming into spaces, being ourselves and still using slang, showing a different perception of what it means to be a teacher, it switches the trajectory of what students can do with their own lives."

Gomez describes his desire to break free of assumptions about trauma being the same across racial and ethnic groups. He's also tired of so much emphasis on narratives of oppression and wants more focus on the many ways people are growing and prospering in community. "Leading doesn't mean I need to lead the discussion," he says. "I like to get to the core of being a human being with people. If we aren't okay emotionally, we're not going to be able to progress as a community."

After feeling like people were always making assumptions about him and his abilities in school, Garcia eagerly gives his students something different. "This month, I've been pushing my students to think critically about everything and to think about the conversation and who it impacts," he says. "There are different ways we can help one another."

Taking Care of the Teachers

It's precisely this intelligence, life experience, empathy, schooling, and wisdom that all students need in their teachers. Now, they need it even more, after the long pandemic years, meeting the moment and imagining how they might lead into the future. Like the stories of Morton, Powell, Garcia and Gomez, research shows that students thrive when they can see themselves in and relate to their teachers. But the teachers themselves also need support.

To attract, train and keep educators who reflect the demographics and needs of students requires attending to many parts in a complex system. Programs certifying teachers must be accessible through recruitment and affordability. Once candidates enter a program, they need relevant materials and welcoming faculty and classmates. When teachers become certified, there is also the piece of feeling welcome and having support in the educational settings where they work. Then the cycle must repeat and grow with more students seeing the pathway open before them as they become inspired to teach.

“I can create a classroom where people love being." —Will Powell
resource teacher at Chief Sealth International High School

Initial funding has helped to further many of these efforts in the UW TEP programs. While a recruitment specialist position is still open, Gwen Sweeney serves as the teacher candidate retention and support specialist. In 2020, the first cohort of 16 students received full-tuition scholarships as Diversifying the Educator Workforce (DEW) Fellows. Having graduated from the Special Education program more than fifteen years ago, Sweeney has a unique perspective. "I can see transformation," she says. “We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re definitely different from 2005.”

Sweeney describes how the TEP programs are shorter than many degree programs but more intense. Her job is to normalize support and resources, meeting students' needs from applying to paying to attending. "How do we better set up folks for success early on?" she asks. "Directors can change the format or structure of a class, spread the class into two quarters if a lot of students need more time, address issues with financial aid, layer upon layer of systems that we have to keep chipping away and changing how things work."

Another critical piece is partnering with other institutions. Seattle Public Schools ARE collaborates with the City of Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning (DEEL) to identify high school seniors and recent graduates, staff, and community members who may want to teach. Suppose these candidates commit to teaching for four years in SPS. In that case, the program pays for their tuition and teacher certification at Central Washington University, City University, North Seattle College, Seattle Central College and the University of Washington. Additionally, all these programs have the potential to work together in their support and funding options as students advance toward their goals in various programs of study.

“I was put on this earth to motivate young people.”
—Antonio “Tone” Morton
special education teacher at Cleveland High School

The cohort model in classes is also crucial, so the students have a network of supportive colleagues. With more students of color comes a more dynamic environment and more feedback. "For me, as a Black student, when I was with only one or two other Black students in a class, I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up honestly about my experiences," says Sweeney. “We will get more feedback as we have larger groups of students with under-represented identities."

Mentoring is another way to increase networks of support. Garcia's principal asked him if he would become a mentor after his third year of teaching, and he's continued since then. "I love it," he says. "The student I mentored last year is now a 4th-grade teacher here. It's nice because I can help future educators and also help dual language teachers better their practice."

Next Generation Rising

Dual language is another area with lots of planned growth in the coming years. Since 2017, the UW's Elementary Teacher Education program (ELTEP) has credentialed more than 50 bilingually endorsed teachers. Associate Teaching Professor Teddi Beam-Conroy emphasizes the importance of dual language in preparing educators committed to racial and linguistic justice.

Beam-Conroy’s leadership on behalf of UW at the state level has influenced an initiative recently announced by State Superintendent Chris Reykdal to increase the number of dual language teachers so that all K-8 Washington students have access to dual language education by 2040. This commitment continues investments to expand the dual language workforce and dual language programs made by the Washington State Legislature since 2015.

Gomez wants to break any existing ideas of what a dual language teacher should or shouldn't be. He remembers a time in school when Spanish language teachers would ask students only to speak Spanish — solo Español. But he also had the experience in elementary school of a teacher saying that he couldn't speak Spanish.

As a teacher, Gomez embraces the cultural richness that comes from being first-generation or fifth-generation and speaking multiple languages or mixing them in new ways. "Sometimes we have 5 to 10 minutes of Spanglish, or Viet-English, or Vietnamese, Spanish and English. That's what it is to bring your culture into the classroom, getting to be you and figuring out who you are in the process," he says.

In Garcia’s district, dual language classrooms are taught in a 50-50% model. The program is very intentional in forming classes with half native Spanish speakers and half non-native speakers, with an emphasis on supporting multilingual learners. The focus in these classrooms is on learning grade level content while also bridging both languages and building students sociocultural competence. “My students have been doing a wonderful job with that,” he says.

In all of this, there's the sense that some things are changing, but there's still so much to do. Morton and Powell talk about navigating the many challenges. Powell mentions that he has 27 students on his Individualized Education Program (IEP) caseload, making it difficult to support them in the ways he wants to. Morton explains that there wasn’t enough time to collaborate and build a relationship with his co-teacher. “I also have a huge IEP caseload with 25 students, which makes it difficult with co-teaching,” he says. “Teachers need to understand each other’s teaching style to serve each student to the best of our abilities.”

It's the job of programs like TEP, with people in positions like Sweeney’s, to continue to listen and evolve and share the load of making real a future equal to the hard work and excellence these leaders bring and the next generation they inspire.

"I feel like when we were coming up, we saw the teacher as the all-knowing," says Powell. "What I love about this generation is they are so much more outspoken. I tell them I don't have all the answers. I'm learning from you all."

– Alice Skipton