Empowering My Students, Empowering Myself
Learn how this Denver teacher is challenging social constructs and the educational status quo with hard work, passion and empathy.
Author: Annette Konoske-Graf
Latinx students in special education
Twenty years ago, Wendy Gutierrez was a Mexican-American student entering elementary school. At the time, her family and doctors were unable to distinguish between a hearing problem and her English language ability. With Spanish as her first language—like many other English as a Second Language (ESL) students—Wendy was placed on a special education pathway.
In special education, “disproportionality” is defined as the under/over representation of racial/ethnic groups in special education courses(1). Generalizing Latinx students and erroneously placing them on a special education pathway without proper assessment can result in lifetime learning and confidence struggles. Wendy had time to reflect on this during the 2020 school year as the world was at a standstill due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.
“I spent time trying to understand myself and my fears (and conquer them, too!). Throughout my life, I have struggled with my voice. While I thought my biggest issue was speaking and articulation, I discovered that what I lacked was confidence. I traced this back to when I was 3 years old and placed on a special education pathway.”
As an adult, Wendy is able to see how being displaced within the school system changed the way she viewed herself at an early age. “It took me 25 years to figure out that the few years that I spent in special education classes hindered my confidence when it came to academics and speech.” Latinx students comprise students from diverse racial and linguistic backgrounds. The term “Latinx” highlights cultures from a wide array of geographical areas, including Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean (1). Because of the rich complexity of language learners among Latinx students, it is important that when entering schools, these students are properly assessed and given support that will further develop their myriad existing abilities.
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Grounded in education
Colorado needs qualified teachers of all backgrounds. When students have teachers who reflect their ethnic identity, they benefit greatly. As a student, Wendy did not have the privilege of having a teacher who reflected her racial background. Luckily for her, she was surrounded by a family dedicated to education and learning.
“The majority of my family members worked at my elementary school: my grandma worked in the main office, my grandpa worked in the cafeteria, my uncle was our IT instructor, and my aunt was a teacher. Teaching runs through my veins because I was taught the importance of education. Not only did my family work at the school, but the majority of my family members also worked additional jobs in order to provide for us.”
Having first-hand examples of the importance of education and hard work set the tone for Wendy’s future. In 2012, she joined the Air Force to pay for her undergraduate degree. The Troops to Teachers program helped connect Wendy with STRIVE Prep, a Denver-based school network working to make a college preparatory education for all students the norm, rather than the exception. Wendy was offered a job at STRIVE Prep-Sunnyside, acquired her alternative teaching license through CU Denver’s ASPIRE to Teach program, and is now enrolled in CU Denver's master's program in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in critical pedagogy.
Making a difference
As a current 7th and 8th grade World Studies teacher, Wendy fosters a classroom environment in which students feel confident questioning the world around them. She wants her students to feel seen, included, and comfortable. Wendy believes fiercely that her students "should be allowed should be allowed to speak up about the changes that they want to see because this is our first step in creating a just future." Recently, Wendy was featured on Denver’s 9News to discuss her work developing LGBTQ+ focused curricula for all middle schools in the STRIVE network.
“My classroom is a safe space for every student to present themselves freely, which empowers them to ask important questions and create bold ideas. I believe all students deserve a truly comprehensive education that exposes hidden voices, like General Von Steuben, a forgotten Revolutionary War hero who was openly gay.”
Great teachers like Wendy know the value and importance of empowering students. And Wendy knows that to empower others, she had to first empower herself as an educator.
Are you ready to answer the call like Wendy? TEACH Colorado can help jumpstart your teaching journey today. Sign up for a free 1:1 coaching call to receive advice customized to your own journey. Come as you are!
- A. (2021, September 19). The disproportionality of Latinx students in special education. Leadership Magazine.
- Colorado Teacher Diversity Lags Latino Student Population. (2013, July 2). Education Writers Association.
- Mason, T. (2019, September 25). Denver Public Schools Faces Challenges Bringing In More Teachers Of Color. CBS Denver 4.