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Sonia Nieto: BookTalk at Barnard


Sonia Nieto, Professor of Language, Literacy and Culture at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Sonia Nieto, Professor of Language, Literacy and Culture at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Since half of all new public school teachers will leave the profession within their first five years of teaching, Sonia Nieto wondered about the ones who stay. Nieto, Professor of Language, Literacy and Culture at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, looked at this issue closely and wrote about it in her book What Keeps Teachers Going (In Spite of Everything)?

Nieto has been a teacher at all levels. Her research has focused on multicultural education, educating students of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and the need for social justice in teacher education.

"It is imperative to keep good teachers," she told the audience in the Julius Held Auditorium at Barnard College. That, she explained, is what led to her research on why the best teachers stay in the profession at all.

In this study, she looked at eight high school teachers, five of whom were named "Teacher of the Year." All were from different public high schools in Boston, and most were teaching for at least 20 years. One teacher, who was in the profession for only six years, had been the student of one of the longer-term teachers in the study.

The first of her findings about why the teachers stay in the profession was a love for their students and for what they teach. "Teaching involves trust and respect, as well as close relationships between students and teachers," Nieto said. "It is, in fact, based on love." The students, she added, bring them strength, and the teachers appreciate that. One of the teachers in the study commented, "They keep me going."

The teachers in the study said they connect learning to students' lives and forge partnerships with the parents. They also view themselves as lifelong learners. "So few of professional development activities focus on these skills, attitudes and qualities," Nieto said.

Another finding is that hope is at the essence of teaching. "It shows up in a number of ways," Nieto explained. "Hope in their students, in public education and faith in their colleagues." Good teachers, she said, need to find the right balance between hope and despair.

One of the teachers in the study, who had a particularly difficult year, said it was the student teachers that gave her a thread of hope every year. "She was able to recapture the idealism she had started with," Nieto said.

Hope, she added, is constantly tested. But anger and desperation also keep teachers going. The anger is at injustices that their students had to endure, at policies, at being treated as if they were children, themselves.

Teachers in the study loved the children they taught and had faith in their own capabilities. They thought deeply about teaching and engaged in intellectual work everyday-the kind that takes considerable thought and research, she said.

She commented on the need for teachers to collaborate rather than become isolated. Schools need to see it as a way of developing a community of teachers as learners in the same way that they are developing a community of kids as learners. Teachers can be the ones to initiate these kinds of groups. "Teachers," she said, "need to take the leadership even when they don't think other teachers are interested."

Nieto was named Teacher of the Year for Hispanic Education in 1996 and for Multicultural Education in 1997. In addition to her work as a teacher, she received a Senior Fellowship in Urban Education from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (1998-2000) and was awarded a residence at the Bellagio Center in Italy in 2000. Her other books include Affirming Diversity: The Socioplitical Context of Multicultural Education (Allyn & Bacon) and The Light in Their Eyes (Teachers College Press), both widely used in teacher education.previous page