This year’s half-dozen finalists for Colorado Teacher of the Year feature no shortage of stories of inspiration and dedication. One teacher in Colorado Springs started a program to help parents of her students learn English. Another juggles running a gifted and talented program with raising twin four-year-old grandchildren.
One thing lacking from the finalist pool, which is larger than in years past: teachers of color.
The omission was noted on Facebook by a couple of Chalkbeat readers, prompting us to ask questions about the past record of the contest and efforts to diversify the applicant pool.
State officials who run the contest don’t track the race or ethnicity of finalists or winners, so it’s impossible to say whether this year is typical. But you need look no further than last year to find a teacher of color who took the top prize — a Latina geography teacher from Basalt who also serves as her school’s English Language Development director.
Educators cite a number of reasons why minority representation may be low, including a time-consuming application process, people just not knowing the contest exists and the simple fact that the state’s teacher workforce does not mirror the diversity of Colorado.
Contest organizers are tweaking and shortening the application, although the intent is to recognize how the profession is changing, not specifically to draw more diverse candidates.
“We would like to mirror our students in the classroom,” said Lynn Bamberry, director of competitive grants and awards at the Colorado Department of Education. “I think it is definitely important.”
It matters, teachers say, because the winner of the award represents teachers across the state and then goes on to compete for the national title.
New York City math teacher Jose Luis Vilson, who also founded EduColor, a collective of teachers advocating for equity in education, said he believes awards and praise are not common at most urban districts or schools where more teachers of color work.
“These are folks that are going to represent teaching and we need to diversify the profession,” Vilson said. “Some schools will say thank you for teaching here, but won’t actually help teachers progress. That’s unfortunate.”
When Justin Darnell, then a teacher at Bryant Webster K-8 School in Denver, learned about the award he noticed a lack of teachers serving disadvantaged students and it motivated him to apply. In 2010, he won the award. His students at Bryant Webster K-8 were vastly from low-income, Hispanic families.
“I was trying to prove there were really great teachers in our schools, too,” Darnell said. “I was wanting to better tell their stories: ‘Here are these kids. They’re amazing.’”
Nine of 19 teachers identified as finalists and winners dating to 2009 worked at schools where less than a quarter of the school’s students qualified for free or reduced lunch, a review of state data shows.
No other Denver Public School teacher has been a finalist or winner since at least 2009. Darnell said when he was applying, he found the last time a DPS teacher won or was a finalist was in the 1980s.
Darnell also wanted to nominate some of his fellow teachers.
“I had specifically targeted and reached out to several teachers that I wanted to nominate,” Darnell said. “Three of the four said, you know, ‘I haven’t done enough,’ or ‘I haven’t been as successful as I want to be.”
Last year’s winner from Basalt, Leticia Guzman Ingram, said her principal’s support likely made a difference for her.
“He kept pushing me. He would say, ‘You’ve got to be the voice of these students,’” Guzman Ingram said. “When I wanted to quit he was like, ‘No, no, no.’ It’s so easy not to finish that application.”
The process begins early in the year when a teacher is nominated — it can be by anyone, a principal, student or colleague. Colorado officials put out the call for nominations online, and sometimes reach out to superintendents to encourage participation.
The department said it received between 30 and 40 applications this year.
“Right now, we’re really trying to get out there and get a bigger pool of applicants,” Bamberry said. “Some states require one (applicant) from each district. We don’t have that.”
Many teachers say they didn’t know about the process before participating. Some finalists were unsure about who could submit a nomination.
Jozette Martinez-Griffin, an advocate for teachers of color and a business teacher at the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, a new DPS high school, suggested that teachers who earn high reviews should automatically be entered into a pool for consideration for Teacher of the Year.
The application process is demanding — letters of recommendation, at least six essays, a video, an interview in Denver and later a classroom visit.
“The application process and the role definitely require an investment of your time and energy. I had to make certain that my family, my school and my district were supportive,” said Carina Raetz, a teacher in Colorado Springs School District 11 who is a finalist in the contest this year. “First of all I had to think about it. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to pursue it until I found out it was not just an award. It was about gaining an influential role.”
Raetz’s husband, 10-year-old son, principal and superintendent were all on board to support her.
Raetz said she was able to finish out the school year in May before diving into the application process at the start of summer.
Colorado uses the national contest application to avoid making the state winner fill out a second application. The national application was just short shortened slightly and moved online.
“We want to make sure to be reflective each year — reflective of what it means to be a teacher,” said Paul Ferrari, director of educator engagement and outreach for the Council of Chief State Officers, the group that runs the national contest.
The national office is also working with state officials to spread the word about the local contests so more teachers can participate, but pointed out that there is a lack of minority teachers overall. Although 45.9 percent of Colorado students are students of color, only 12 percent of teachers are.
“I hope to see more minority teachers in the future,” Guzman Ingram said. “It’s really important to be role models for our kids. We all need to be out there and speak for them.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified last year’s Teacher of the Year winner, Leticia Guzman Ingram, as the English language director for her district.