National Writing Project

Nieto to Focus on Why Teachers Stay—in Spite of Everything—at 2008 Spring Meeting

Date: January 2008

Summary: Sonia Nieto, a leading authority in the field of multiculturalism, will deliver the keynote address at NWP's 2008 Spring Meeting. She will explore the question of what sustains teachers in challenging situations and discuss the implications for professional development.


When Sonia Nieto began her teaching career in 1966 at Junior High School 278, a school in Ocean Hill Brownsville in Brooklyn, the school’s environment was perhaps more challenging to her than was being a new teacher. Teacher turnover at the school was nearly 50 percent a year; for safety reasons, she was not allowed in her own classroom before 7:45 a.m.; and home visits were discouraged because “you never knew what would happen.”

Teachers, staff, parents, community members, and students were all angry. For Nieto, a young Puerto Rican teacher, it was a baptism by fire.

Yet she stayed.

With experience teaching students at all levels and from many socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, Nieto, now professor emerita of language, literacy, and culture in the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is one of the leading authors and teachers in the field of multiculturalism. She has won several awards in her field, most notably the 1997 Multicultural Educator of the Year award from the National Association for Multicultural Education and the 2005 Educator of the Year Award from the National Council of Teachers of English.

Nieto will be delivering the Keynote Address at NWP’s Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, April 3–4. In her talk, “What Keeps Teachers Going—In Spite of Everything?,” she will look at the qualities that lead teachers to remain committed to their work, teaching students of diverse background in difficult situations. She will review her research with an inquiry group of Boston High School teachers on what sustains them in their profession. Based on their words and anecdotes, she will discuss implications for teacher preparation and professional development.

Level Playing Field?

She learned two important lessons that have stayed with her throughout her career: one can be academically successful and bilingual, and being bicultural is an asset rather than a deficiency.

Two years after her first teaching job, Nieto joined the faculty of P.S. 25, the first completely bilingual school in the Northeast, where she learned two important lessons that have stayed with her throughout her career: one can be academically successful and bilingual, and being bicultural is an asset rather than a deficiency.

At P.S. 25, however, she also learned some more disturbing lessons. “No matter how much they or I tried, some of the young people I taught continued to experience tremendous failure,” she writes in her most recent book, What Keeps Teachers Going? (2002).

“It was then I began to question whether the ‘level playing field’ I had always been taught existed for all people in the United States [was a reality.] Looking back now, I realize that when I started teaching I innocently thought that individual teachers could do it all. I was convinced that I could change students’ lives through hard work and dedication and by taking them to the Museum of Natural History and the Cloisters.”

She began to see that the inequalities in American society are reflected in educational policies and that to begin to understand American education one must examine it in its sociopolitical context. Further, she thought, if one teacher is limited in what he or she can do, it is appropriate for teachers to work through problems together by reflecting on the big things, talking, thinking, and writing about critical issues in education.

What “Multicultural Education” Means

These were also the years when Nieto came to see the importance of multicultural education. But multicultural education for Nieto was not “merely lessons in self esteem, or celebrations of ethnic heroes and current customs.”

Rather, multicultural education meant “antiracist, basic education that must be firmly related to student learning and that should permeate all areas of schooling,” as she points out in What Keeps Teachers Going?. “It is for all students, encompassing not only race, ethnicity and language, but also gender, social class, sexual orientation, ability and other differences. Moreover it needs to be accompanied by a deep commitment to social justice and equal access to resources.”

Nieto turns the frequently asked question, ‘Why do teachers leave?’ on its head. She asks instead, ‘Why do teachers stay?’

Beginning in the 1970s, when Nieto took up her career as a college teacher, first at Brooklyn College and then at the University of Massachusetts, she became a strong advocate for these ideas, which had been incubating during her years as a classroom teacher. In 1992 she wrote Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, and in 1999, The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities.

Why Do Teachers Stay?

In What Keeps Teachers Going?  Nieto turns the frequently asked question, “Why do teachers leave?” on its head. She asks instead, “Why do teachers stay?”

In the context of her previous work, a focus on the resiliency of individual teachers may seem something of a departure, but in a talk at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2000, Nieto made clear that the macro and micro views of education need to be an intertwined focus: “My faith in the power of teachers remains strong, but it is now tempered by a deeper understanding of the limits of personal commitment and hard work on the part of individual teachers. . . . [Teachers] are related in complex ways with political ideologies that surround them in schools, communities, and our nation and the world. But there is no doubt that individual teachers can and do profoundly influence the lives of their students.”

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