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Change(d) Agents: School Contexts and the Cultural/Professional Roles of New Teachers of Mexican Descent

by Betty Achinstein & Rodney T. Ogawa - 2011

Background/Context: Educators and policymakers call for recruiting quality teachers of color in urban schools to promote educational opportunities for students of color by accessing cultural/linguistic resources. Yet little research has examined conditions that support or challenge Latina/o new teachers from performing as role models, culturally and linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change.

Purpose/Research Questions: To examine conditions that support/challenge Latina/o teachers’ efforts to perform cultural/professional roles, we asked the following: (a) How and to what extent are the personal and professional backgrounds of Latina/o teachers associated with their performance as role models, culturally/linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change? (b) How and to what extent are conditions in schools associated with the performance of Latina/o teachers as role models, culturally/linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change?

Participants: Participants were drawn from a broader study about the socialization of 21 new teachers of color. The participants in the study reported here were 2 of the 11 teachers who identify as being of Mexican descent who work in urban, middle and high schools with high proportions of Latina/o student populations in California.

Research Design/Data/Analysis: This 4-year qualitative case study included teacher and administrator interviews, videotaped classroom observations, and focus groups. Analysis involved summarizing segments of data that referenced teacher background, school context, and teacher cultural/professional beliefs and practices; generating pattern codes; and conducting cross-case analysis.

Findings: Findings reveal the following: 1. Shaped by early schooling experiences and influenced by teacher preparation programs, these teachers are committed to increasing learning opportunities for Latina/o students by performing cultural/professional roles. 2. The teachers’ ability to perform these roles is shaped by the capital and power relations present in the schools where they work. We identify parallels between experiences of Latina/o youth, who are divested of cultural resources by “subtractive schooling” (Valenzuela, 1999) and experiences of Latina new teachers, who confront schooling challenges when attempting to perform cultural/professional roles. 3. The intersection of the teachers’ personal/professional backgrounds and school contexts resulted in these new teachers of color being change(d) agents—both agents of change and subjected to change by the system in which the teachers work.

Conclusions: Conclusions highlight how further research is needed to document culturally additive school conditions that support teachers of color to advance opportunities for students of color. Further, educational leaders and policymakers will need to reconsider the organizational contexts in which new teachers of color are expected to redress inequitable learning opportunities for nondominant youth.

Educators and policymakers call for recruiting and retaining quality teachers of color in urban schools serving students of color.1 Key assumptions that drive this call are that teachers of color will be committed to working with youth of color, and promote educational opportunities and positive outcomes for students of color by accessing cultural and linguistic resources in the teachers and their students. A recent review of research on retention among teachers of color noted that many teachers of color are motivated by a “humanistic orientation,” which reflects the belief that they can improve educational outcomes for students of color (Achinstein, Ogawa, Sexton, & Freitas, 2010). Advocates of recruiting and retaining teachers of color cite an emerging body of research, which suggests that teachers of color can produce more favorable academic results on standardized test scores, attendance, retention, advanced-level course enrollment, and college-going rates for students of color than White colleagues (Clewell, Puma, & McKay, 2005; Dee, 2004; Hanushek, Kain, O’Brien, & Rivkin, 2005; Klopfenstein, 2005; Villegas & Irvine, 2009). Advocates also cite studies reporting that teachers of color may be able to improve educational opportunities for students of color by serving as role models, culturally and linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change in the educational system because teachers of color understand the cultural and linguistic experiences of students of color and thus can build cultural bridges between school and students’ homes and communities (Gándara & Maxwell-Jolley, 2000; Quiocho & Rios, 2000; Valencia, 2002; Villegas & Irvine, 2009; Villegas & Lucas, 2004). Yet little research has examined conditions that support or challenge new teachers of color, and particularly Latina/o new teachers, from performing as role models, culturally and linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change for students of color.

This study is part of a larger project, which focuses on how the backgrounds of new teachers of color and the schools in which the teachers work shape their induction and professional socialization. Preliminary analysis suggested that the Latina/o new teachers in the project were committed to serving as role models, culturally and linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change, but that their ability to perform these cultural/professional roles was associated with conditions in their schools. Further analysis, reported in this article, revealed that the conditions in schools that challenged the ability of teachers to perform these roles paralleled the conditions characterized by Valenzuela (1999) as “subtractive schooling” for Latina/o students. Therefore, what began as a study of teacher socialization came to focus on the culturally subtractive conditions that Latina teachers, like Latina/o students, confront in schools, challenging teacher commitments and denying the teachers access to cultural resources on which teaching and learning can build. Thus, this work highlights how the intersection of the teachers’ personal/professional backgrounds and school contexts resulted in new teachers of color being change(d) agents—both agents of change and subjected to change by the system in which the teachers work.


The purpose of this study is to examine conditions that support or challenge Latina/o teachers’ efforts to perform cultural/professional roles. We asked the following: (a) How and to what extent are the personal and professional backgrounds of Latina/o teachers associated with their performance as role models, culturally/linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change? (b) How and to what extent are conditions in schools associated with the performance of Latina/o teachers as role models, culturally/linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change?

We compared the case studies of 2 new teachers of Mexican descent who teach in schools with high proportions of Latina/o students. These cases were drawn from initial analyses of a subgroup of 11 new teachers of Mexican descent in a broader study of the induction of 21 new teachers of color working in urban schools with high proportions of students of color. In this article, we deepen and broaden our analysis through a 4-year study of 2 new teachers, who are committed to performing the cultural/professional roles that are claimed by previous research to enhance educational opportunities for Latina/o students and provide differences in enactment that reflect trends found from the 11 case studies (as discussed in the Methods section).


This study is framed by related literature on two topics. First, we draw on conceptions of the cultural/professional roles of teachers of color to which the new teachers in our study were committed. Second, to understand what supported or inhibited enactment of such roles, we turn to the influence of teachers’ personal and professional backgrounds and school contexts factors on the socialization of new teachers of color.


Scholars identify three cultural/professional roles through which teachers of color can enhance educational opportunities for students of color: (a) providing positive role models, (b) engaging in culturally and linguistically responsive teaching, and (c) working as agents of change. Roles are sets of negotiated expectations, behaviors, and norms as conceptualized by actors in a social situation. Cultural/professional roles are sets of norms and expectations negotiated at the nexus of teachers’ ethnic/cultural affiliations and occupational/organizational contexts. We do not view cultural roles as static labels that are deterministic and simplistic but highlight the dynamic nature of cultural practices within communities (Guitiérrez & Rogoff, 2003). Nor do we suggest that White teachers cannot be effective teachers of students of color or adopt culturally/linguistically responsive practices, that teachers of color cannot teach effectively outside their own group, or that all teachers of color are effective with students of color.

Role Models

A role model is “a person who serves as an example of the values, attitudes, and behaviors associated with a role” (“Role Model,” n.d.). Research suggests that teachers of color can provide positive role models for students sharing the teachers’ racial, cultural, linguistic, or class backgrounds (Valencia, 2002; Villegas & Lucas, 2004). Role models can promote high expectations, achievement, and college-going; challenge stereotype threat and racism; offer mentoring relationships that reflect home cultures and familial-like ties; and provide multicultural navigators and cross-cultural translators helping youth to transition between dominant and nondominant cultural settings (Carter, 2005; Dee, 2004; Ferguson, 2003; Steele, 1997; Yosso, 2006). Basit and McNamara (2004) and Su (1997) indicated that teachers of color perceive themselves as role models, who motivate students to higher academic achievement, broaden students’ career aspirations, and challenge society’s and students’ stereotypes.

Research also identifies limitations of the role model hypothesis. Achinstein and Aguirre (2008) reported that new teachers of color who initially assumed a cultural match found that students of color, at times, questioned teachers’ sociocultural identifications and connectedness. Solomon (1997) found that teachers of color with role model commitments faced expectations by students, parents, and colleagues that resulted in unforeseen social, cultural, and psychological pressures. Irvine (1989) suggested looking beyond the role model concept to examine teachers’ of color pedagogies that support student learning.

Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teachers

Researchers have reported that teachers of color, who share racial, cultural, and/or linguistic backgrounds with students, may tap cultural resources in themselves and their students to engage in culturally and linguistically responsive teaching (CLRT) (Foster, 1994; Ladson-Billings, 1995), support cultural boundary crossing (Carter, 2005; Irvine, 1989), and provide a cultural bridge to learning (Carter, 2005; Villegas & Lucas, 2004). Galindo and Olguin (1996) described how bilingual Chicana educators tap cultural resources to support Latina/o youths’ identities, parents, and communities. Cabello, Eckmier, and Baghieri (1995) reported that Latina/o teachers want to foster curriculum that responds to and reflects Latina/o experiences.

Studies have identified three dimensions of CLRT that promote academic access and success: (a) engages communities of learners that socially construct knowledge; (b) demonstrates cultural competence and connects pedagogy and curriculum to students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and (c) reflects a critical perspective that reveals the “hidden curriculum,” names inequities, and supports students in questioning and challenging the status quo (Banks et al., 2005; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1995; Nieto, 2000; Villegas & Lucas, 2004). However, we cannot assume that new teachers of color will know how to enact CLRT. While they may possess valuable cultural and linguistic resources, these resources would need to be acknowledged and developed for teachers to enact such practices (Sheets, 2004). Further, Tabachnick and Bloch (1995) warned that when cultural compatibility theories, generally, and culturally responsive teaching, specifically, essentialize culture, they can support stereotyping that disadvantages some groups.

Agents of Change

Research suggests that teachers who enhance opportunities for students of color can act as “agents of change” who recognize that schools reproduce inequalities and, thus, participate in a broader struggle to change society and the education system (Cochran-Smith, 1991; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). Some teachers of color are particularly likely to view themselves as agents of change if they experienced schooling injustice (Gordon, 1993; Quiocho & Rios, 2000). Weisman (2001) concluded that Latina teachers pursued social change because they developed a bicultural identity and thus held a critical perspective of the histories of nondominant groups.

Researchers have documented that teachers of color can act as agents of change through their teaching. Studies document that teachers of color are more supportive of antiracist education than are White teachers (Carr & Klassen, 1997) and attempt to alter the education system by incorporating “politically relevant teaching” (Beaubouef-Lafontant, 1999). Koerner and Hulsebosch (1995) identified teachers of color as “gate openers” for access to success rather than “gate keepers.” Beyond the classroom, teachers can act as agents of change, effecting school and district change, as well as engaging parents as partners in transforming schools (Villegas & Lucas, 2002). Alternatively, teachers of color can carry the burden of internalized oppression or face institutional forces that may reproduce, rather than transform, the status quo in schools.


Understanding the socialization of new teachers of color will help identify factors that support or inhibit the development of cultural/professional roles. Socialization involves the means by which people are enculturated into a profession. We draw from the interpretive and interactionist traditions of research on teacher socialization, which hold that individuals and their social contexts shape socialization (Lacey, 1977; Zeichner & Gore, 1990). Thus, the framework that guided this study highlights the influence of teacher background and the organizational context of schools on the ability of new teachers to act on principles and commitments about appropriate ways to teach.

Personal and Professional Backgrounds

Teachers’ personal backgrounds and histories can influence their professional socialization by shaping their worldviews (Weick, 1995) and professional commitments. Teachers’ personal backgrounds also affect where the teachers choose to work, their practice, and connections with students, which in turn shape the contexts of their socialization experiences (Delpit, 1995; Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002). Teachers’ professional preparation can influence their practice and CLRT, especially in programs with strong visions of teaching and explicit social justice agendas (Kennedy, 1999; Ladson-Billings, 2001).

Researchers have documented the impact of teacher background on cultural/professional roles for teachers of color. Families, mentors and role models, experiences with social injustice, and socioeconomic-political and ethnic role identities shape the beliefs and commitments of teachers of color (Galindo, 1996; Irvine, 2003; Quiocho & Rios, 2000). However, some teachers of color may devalue their cultural backgrounds because their early schooling or preservice education emphasized assimilation and deculturalization (Delpit, 1995; Foster, 1990; McLaughlin, 1993).

Organizational Contexts of Schools

We also examined the organizational contexts of the schools in which the new teachers are socialized. Schools possess three forms of capital that influence teacher socialization (Achinstein, Ogawa, & Speiglman, 2004; Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006; Ingersoll, 2003; Spillane & Thompson, 1997): (a) human capital, which includes professional knowledge and skills, commitments, and dispositions to learn about and perform professional roles; (b) social capital, which involves relationships and community, sense of trust and collaboration, and professional ties to networks and community within and beyond the school; and (c) cultural capital or cultural knowledge that confers power and status (Bourdieu, 1977) as embodied in what is considered legitimate school knowledge, curriculum, and teaching practices. We consider cultural capital in relation to dominant and nondominant cultures, thus identifying a form of “multicultural capital” or resources to navigate and affirm diverse cultural contexts (Achinstein & Aguirre, 2008).2 Moreover, we highlight capital as it is exchanged within organizational contexts, rather than embodied by individuals. Exchanges within school organization involve relations, social systems, practices, norms, and structures that can foster or inhibit individuals’ access to resources. Coleman (1988) articulated how social capital “inheres in the structure of relations between actors and among actors. It is not lodged either in the actors themselves or in the physical implements of production” (p. 98). While we describe discrete forms of capital, in fact there are interactions among forms of capital. For example, social capital in the form of teacher collaboration can be exchanged to gain access to human capital in the form of new instructional skills and knowledge.

These three forms of capital are situated within power structures and relations that formalize and legitimate what counts as capital. Power structures and relations include norms that define the nature of social relations between organizational roles, including decision-making and influencing the behaviors of others. Thus, control over decisions and behaviors is included in the framework, highlighting teacher agency to enact cultural/professional roles.

The amount and types of capital that schools possess and how schools allocate capital can influence how new teachers of color enact cultural/professional roles. Teachers of color often work in schools with little human capital, where colleagues have limited experience and minimal preparation, reducing opportunities for novices to learn and be mentored (Quiocho & Rios, 2000). Schools with limited social capital can marginalize teachers of color, particularly when their views about education differ from those of colleagues, who maintain the status quo (Carr & Klassen, 1997; Feuerverger, 1997). Schools lacking multicultural capital can create barriers to resources for navigating and affirming diverse cultural contexts. Studies indicate that issues of race were not discussed in schools where it was deemed inappropriate for faculty discussion (Foster, 1994); and teachers of Mexican descent were unable to incorporate their cultural knowledge in schools with preestablished curricula (Tellez, 1999).



The study is part of a program of research on the induction experiences of teachers of color. The case study approach offers an opportunity to describe teachers’ conceptions and the nature of classroom practice over time (Yin, 1989). Case study design is utilized to obtain an in-depth understanding of processes, contexts, and their meanings for those involved (Merriam, 1988). Although not generalizable, findings provide opportunities to generate hypotheses and build theory about relationships that may otherwise remain hidden (Yin, 1989).


The authors of this paper are a White woman, who is a former middle and high school social studies teacher, school reformer, researcher, and teacher educator, and an Asian American man who taught middle and high school social studies, developed multicultural curriculum, and is an education professor, who studies the impact of reform on school organizations. Both are scholars concerned with diversifying the teaching profession and educational equity. In working together and with a culturally/linguistically diverse research team, we identified subjectivities, debated interpretations of data, and examined how our perspectives impacted the work. We acknowledge that our own positionings impact the research. We sought to address limitations by soliciting feedback from our research team, study participants, and scholars of color.


Participants were drawn from a broader study of 21 new teachers of color, who were selected based on the following criteria: (a) initially was a teacher candidate in one of two teacher education programs that are committed to recruiting teachers of color, placing them in urban diverse settings, and providing them with formal classes on issues of diversity and culturally and linguistically responsive and socially just teaching; (b) identified as a teacher of color with a commitment to working in an urban school with a high proportion of students of color; (c) reflected a spectrum of subject matter domains, and both genders; and (d) worked in California where the policy context is relatively supportive of new teachers (with a funded mandate for induction and mentoring). The participants in the study reported here were 2 of the 11 teachers who identify as being of Mexican descent and work in urban, middle and high schools with high Latina/o student populations. We chose these 2 teachers because they reflected the patterns that emerged in our initial analysis of data on the 11 teachers regarding contrasts in enactment of CLRT and schooling contexts (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2007). While no teacher consistently demonstrated higher enactment in all domains of CLRT, we noted a general trend: teachers with lower levels of enactment were in schools that generally exhibited less social, human, and multicultural capital and less supportive power structures. A smaller group of teachers with moderate enactment of CLRT worked in schools that tended to have more social, human, and multicultural capital and greater teacher control. We selected 2 teachers because their cases differed along the spectrum of enactment and organizational support, thus offering the basis for theory-building about new teachers of color and contexts that support or inhibit cultural/professional roles.


Data reflect 4 years of the teachers’ lives (preservice and 3 years of teaching) and were collected from the following sources: teacher and administrator interviews, classroom observations, and focus groups. Each year, teachers participated in three semistructured, tape-recorded interviews, which were conducted in the fall, winter, and spring. Interviews ranged in duration from 45 to 120 minutes.3 In the initial interviews, among other questions, we asked teachers about why they wanted to become a teacher, why they chose to teach in their school, and how they envisioned their role in the school. In follow-up interviews, we asked how, if at all, aspects of the teachers’ cultural backgrounds informed their role as a teacher. Without prompting, participants began identifying commitments to being a cultural “role models,” “culturally responsive teachers,” and “change agents.” In subsequent interviews, we explicitly followed up on emergent themes about these different roles, which were also highlighted in previous research literature. We rely heavily on these interview data to understand the insiders’ perspective on the three roles, which was essential because two of the roles, role model and change agent, are not as easily captured through lesson observation. To capture teachers’ instruction, researchers videotaped each teacher during twelve 1- to 2-hour lessons in the first 2 years of the teachers’ teaching. At the end of each year, we interviewed an administrator or school support provider. Member checks were conducted in the form of focus groups where we brought together participants in the study each summer to reflect on major study themes, soliciting written feedback and audio-taped group discussions. Finally, we sought feedback about the initial findings from new teacher mentors and scholars on teachers of color at professional convenings.

We analyzed data from the two case studies on three levels (Miles & Huberman, 1994). First, we summarized segments of data that referenced (a) teacher background; (b) school context; and (c) teacher cultural/professional beliefs and practices in general, and then as participants began to identify specific roles, we categorized data related to being a role model, culturally/linguistically responsive teacher, and agent of change. We summarized interview data on the abovementioned dimensions. We also documented evidence of elements of CLRT in practice from videotaped classroom practice (e.g., community of learners, cultural/linguistic responsiveness, and social justice perspective). Here we sought to capture as much evidence of teaching practices aligned with three elements of CLRT by writing vignettes of observed lessons and supplemented these with information from interviews with the teachers.

Second, we generated pattern codes, using the constant comparative method (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) to develop, revise, and regenerate categories and codes. We examined (a) the commitment to and the nature and level of role performance of each of the three cultural/professional roles and identified representative examples; (b) kinds of support for and challenges to performing each of the three roles associated with teacher background factors (home, family, schooling, and preservice experiences); and (c) kinds of support for and challenges to performing each of the roles associated with school-level factors, including human, social, and multicultural capital and power structures. From these analyses, we developed two case studies highlighting ways in which teacher background and school context were associated with each teacher’s enactment of the three roles.

Third, we conducted a cross-case analysis. We developed matrices and other displays to further condense data and draw comparisons. We compared and contrasted the 2 teachers’ cultural and professional beliefs and enactment of practices related to the three roles, and teacher background and school context factors associated with role enactment. This level of analysis generated new themes about subtractive and additive schooling, a spectrum of organizational contexts related to the cultural/professional roles, and the dilemma of being change(d) agents. Finally, we incorporated feedback from member checks and mentor and scholar feedback.

Limitations of this study include the size of the sample and heavy reliance on teachers’ self-reports and observations of teaching. While we collected some evidence from other school stakeholders (principals, mentors), the findings rely heavily on data that reflect teachers’ views and experiences from interviews and observations. Alternatively, in-depth case studies and teachers’ perspectives are vital for building theory about teacher socialization and cultural/professional roles. Because we sought to understand the ways teachers were making sense of and negotiating these roles, the teachers’ insider perspectives are vital.


We examine the cases of Inez and Alejandra, new teachers of Mexican descent, who are deeply committed to performing cultural/professional roles.4 First, we report that these teachers drew from their personal backgrounds and teacher preparation to fuel their commitments to performing as role models, culturally/linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change. Second, we describe how the teachers enacted the three roles, disclosing differences in their approaches to changing the education system. Finally, we reveal the complexity of performing these roles and identify dimensions of school contexts, including multiple forms of organizational capital and power relations that challenged or supported these teachers’ attempts to perform these roles. Thus, we find the teachers are agents of change and changed agents as they negotiate their commitments in the organizational contexts of schools.


Inez and Alejandra share similar ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic, and schooling backgrounds that shaped their cultural/professional roles in urban schools with high concentrations of students from nondominant cultural and linguistic communities. Inez was the first of nine siblings born in the United States. Her parents migrated from Mexico and left school by the third grade to support their families. Her father came to the United States as an undocumented worker. Inez grew up in a low-income, Latina/o neighborhood in California and stayed there throughout her schooling, including college and graduate school. Alejandra identifies as a first-generation, bilingual Mexican American. Her parents were born in Mexico and came to the United States in their early 20s. Her father is a recently unemployed construction worker; her mother cleans houses. Alejandra’s family, including four siblings, lives in a low-income, Latina/o community in Texas.

Both Inez and Alejandra were influenced by early experiences in school to become teachers and improve opportunities for Latina/o youth. Inez was motivated by her negative experiences as a student who encountered low expectations and limited opportunities. In high school, Inez had her earliest exposure to teaching at her church and through tutoring youth in a housing project in south Los Angeles where she found students had lost their motivation to learn because “teachers just didn’t care.” She became committed to being a teacher who cared and held high expectations for urban youth, providing them with a role model and opportunities to succeed. Inez is particularly committed to youth who, like her, are English learners.

Similarly, Alejandra’s recognition of the shortcomings of her schooling and sense of injustice inspired her to teach:

I didn’t understand why it was that I was the one succeeding while all my friends were getting pregnant, dropping out, and getting into drugs. It wasn’t until college that I realized it’s because we work within a system that makes it so that most people from my background fail.

This was catalyzed by her experience at a math camp where she, as one of the few Latinas, felt woefully unprepared.

Both Inez and Alejandra were inspired by teachers, most of whom were Latina role models, to become educators. Inez explained:

I was fortunate to have two professors who touched my life, set high expectations for me, and allowed me to get to where I am with resources they provided. How will I motivate other students? . . . I hope students will realize that everyone who puts their mind and heart to it can go to college.

Alejandra’s role models were a Latina math teacher and a White history teacher: “With the Latina, I was able to see myself in her and figured, if she could do it, I could do it, too.”

Inez and Alejandra attended university-based, teacher education programs whose missions were consistent with their commitments to work with students from nondominant cultural and linguistic communities. Inez’s preservice program, which is located in a prestigious, public university, describes its mission as providing high-quality education and improving urban schooling for California’s racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse students. The program’s courses addressed issues of culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and teachers’ roles as change agents. Inez’s student teaching experience deepened her commitment to working with students who, like herself, were second-language learners. Inez was prohibited from speaking Spanish to students who were native Spanish speakers because her school enforced an English-only policy. Alejandra entered the teacher education program at the prestigious private university where she earned her undergraduate degree. That program suited Alejandra’s interests by preparing her to teach with cultural relevance, to be sensitive to the community and political contexts of education, to focus on the needs and development of learners, and to ground instruction in subject matter that encourages inquiry. She also had a student teaching experience that inspired her to work with English learners, where she felt a connection with the students.

Inez and Alejandra were drawn to working in schools with high proportions of students from low-income and culturally and linguistically nondominant communities. Inez accepted a teaching position in a school because “it’s within the community that I live, which is very important to me because I feel that I need to be able to relate to my kids and know their surroundings.” She taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and math, social studies, and science to sixth-grade English learner students. Seventy-five percent of her students were from Mexico; 25% were from Central America. City Middle School is a large district-run public school located in an urban community, where most of the residents are African American or Latina/o. All of the school’s 1,948 students are members of nondominant racial and cultural communities: 56% African American and 44% Latina/o; 22% of the students are English Language Learners (ELLs). The school has 57% of its students receiving free/reduced lunch and is a Title 1 school.

Alejandra student-taught and took a teaching position in a small, public charter high school (with some autonomy from the district) that had opened 2 years earlier and was sponsored by the university where she was an undergraduate and graduate student. Southside High School is racially diverse, with a student body of 296 that is 54% Latina/o, 29% African American, 5% Filipino, 5% Pacific Islander, 4% White, and 3% multiracial. Sixty-six percent of the students receive free/reduced lunch, and 34% are ELLs. The staff is also diverse with 50% White, 33% Latina/o, 6% African American, 6% Asian, and 6% multiracial. Alejandra taught 9th- and 10th-grade humanities (mostly classes for the general population and one sheltered ELL class in humanities). Unlike Inez, Alejandra did not teach in the community in which she was raised.

Inez and Alejandra confronted different personal challenges to performing cultural/professional roles. Because Inez lives in the community where her school is located, she finds it difficult to separate her personal life from her roles as teacher and role model:

because I am . . . a public figure in the eyes of my kids and their parents . . . I feel that it’s a little hard for students to see me outside of the class, to see me as a normal human . . . so the role model figure that is presented in the classroom . . . can change.

Alejandra’s challenge stemmed from her multifaceted and shifting identities as she negotiated her schooling experiences, which complicated the cultural match between herself and her Latina/o students. While Alejandra relied on her cultural knowledge to connect with Latina/o students, she acknowledged that going to college and becoming a teacher shifted her social and economic status, distancing her from her cultural and community roots: “I have a feeling of disconnect sometimes because the last time I really lived in the barrio, in the kind of place where [my students] live, I was 18 years old.” Alejandra characterized the contrast between her life before college and her life as a middle-class professional as a “contradiction” that made her feel “disjointed” from her community, and “culturally suspect” in the eyes of some Latina/o students. Some Latina/o students challenged her “talking White” and “Americanized Spanish.” Alejandra described the tension she faced as a role model:

Be prepared to have your race be called into question . . . You will be criticized for that background as well as admired for that background. Be prepared to be criticized for your education and admired for it. Everything you have, your identity, [students] will see it as a positive and a negative.

Another manifestation of the challenge presented by Alejandra’s shifting identities is reflected in a dilemma she confronted in attempting to change the educational system while working in it. She had moved from an “angry stage” where she recognized injustice as a high school student to deciding in college to “work within the system to change it.” She explained:

One of my first transformations into being a person who’s very passionate about social justice was going through the angry stage. I was very angry at White people, very angry at the system . . . Slowly I started to realize that to change the system, you have to work within the system.

To gain social acceptance, she altered the way she spoke and gestured: “I didn’t want people to judge me by my accent. I made a conscious effort to change the way I spoke, and I learned to have mannerisms of the people who were surrounding me, most of whom were White.” In becoming a change agent, she had been changed by the system, exhibited in expressions of feeling distanced from her home community, speech, and mannerisms.


Both Inez and Alejandra sought to perform the cultural/professional roles of role model, culturally and linguistically responsive teacher, and agent of change. However, the teachers performed these roles to different degrees and with different approaches to change.  

Role Model

Inez and Alejandra served as role models, with Alejandra having more opportunities to perform this role. Both teachers connected with Latina/o students through shared cultural experiences and language. Inez identified dimensions in which she related to the experiences of her students: “I see myself as a role model because I connect with the experiences and backgrounds . . . of my students and their parents. I grew up in a surrounding neighborhood.” Alejandra recalled how she connected to the experiences of her Latina/o students: “Because I look like the students, [they] know immediately that in many ways I am one of them . . . [I connect to their] socioeconomic status simply because I know what they are going through.” She was also afforded opportunities to perform as role model by parts of the curriculum. For example, Alejandra’s grade-level team developed an assignment for all ninth-grade students to write autobiographies about turning points in the students’ lives. In introducing this activity, she recounted her own life story: “It’s my way of letting them know that I share some of the stuff they’ve gone through.” She hoped to use her own experience understanding violence in the community to help students “become more critical about the experiences in their lives . . . so [the violence] is not seen as normal. Giving them tools to understand that . . . to make it better.”

Inez and Alejandra emphasized that sharing Spanish as their first language provided a special connection with their Spanish-speaking students. Inez recounted, “I’ve noticed that a lot of the Latino kids . . . feel that connection because they’re able to speak Spanish to someone in the school.” Alejandra similarly recalled:

When I’m talking to them one on one, I speak in Spanglish or all Spanish and I’ll use more slang. I think that that shows them that they don’t have to give up their identity to become a successful academic person.

Alejandra also explained how sharing language and culture enabled her to support a struggling Latina student:

The fact that I am Latina, speak Spanish, and came from her background gave me a very strong in to talk to her . . . The turning point in the conversation was when I was able to speak to some of my experiences and how they were similar to hers.

Inez and Alejandra described how they knew they had become role models for their Latina/o students. Inez’s students copied her behavior: “I even see students mimicking things I say . . . one of the students said, ‘Well, remember we have to be responsible students, and we have to be responsible for our education.’ I think I had said that.” Alejandra recalled a particular incident at student poetry night for the community: “At the end of it, one of my students came up to me, and she hugged me, and she told me, ‘When I grow up I wanna be just like you.’”

Inez and Alejandra believed they provided examples of Latinas who had been successful in college. Inez said, “I see myself as a role model for these students because . . . I talk to them about going to college and what I experienced entering college, challenges, barriers, and how one is able to overcome these.” Alejandra described herself as a counterexample:

I am this Latina who graduated from [a university] and is the daughter of immigrants. That in itself is a role model . . . because they can see themselves in me. They can conclude that “if she did it, so can I.” . . . When they think of somebody who went to college, graduate school, who works in an office, and drives a nice car, they usually think of White people . . . I want them to know that isn’t the standard.

Alejandra also acted as a role model as a senior advisor and talked with students about tensions in negotiating the college-going experience:

In the community where I teach, people don’t go to college. It’s a big deal if people go to college. [For] many people who are first timers . . . there’s a tension like you’re breaking away from what the rest of the family is doing and . . . [college] is not exactly jam packed with people who look like you and come from your background . . . My choosing to be a senior advisor is a huge way to advocate for them because one of the biggest roles you play is helping kids choose colleges and the [negotiate the] application process.

Beyond being an individual who acted as role model, Alejandra described how her colleagues had been models for a newcomer freshman from Mexico who was contemplating dropping out of school. Alejandra explained:

We had a conversation with him . . . [about] what we needed to do as a school and what I needed to do specifically as a teacher to ensure that he could get into community college and succeed. I think that really impacted me just because only 5 months ago he was thinking of stopping school altogether. Now he’s thinking of how to further his education. I attribute that to the school and to the environment that it’s created in which there’s a lot of adult support and adult models. It feels like that’s the reason he succeeded.

Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teacher

Inez and Alejandra were committed to and to different degrees enacted the three elements of culturally/linguistically responsive teaching (CLRT): establish a community of learners, draw on students’ cultural/linguistic experiences in teaching, and promote a social justice perspective.

Community of learners. Inez described how she worked at “building that community of learners within the classroom . . . where the students are the experts and they’re providing information and we are learning together.” When Inez did find time to engage in collaborative activities, she arranged desks for group work, supported student-to-student exchanges in Spanish and English, and had students report what they had learned as group members. Inez also established a cultural center where students brought books, pictures, and other items to share.

Alejandra’s classroom had high levels of student engagement with group work being the norm for herself and colleagues at the school. She worked closely with her grade-level and subject area teams to construct activities and structures that involved collaborative learning, group problem-solving, and reciprocal teaching. She had students jointly develop a newscast on the Great Depression, develop collaborative lesson plans to teach the rest of the class about slavery and women’s rights, and work together on writing an essay on a novel. In one lesson, Alejandra supported learning about different forms of democracy by employing a simulation about negotiations between “yellow” and “green” people (workers and owners), who were represented by two groups. When students presented the results of their group work, an animated debate ensued. Alejandra described her use of cariño (caring similar to the environment created in a Latino family) to create community: “I call students mijo and mija . . . this mostly happens with advisees. It shows a lot of love and care. It literally means my son and my daughter.”

Students’ cultural and linguistic experiences. In teaching, both Inez and Alejandra incorporated their cultural and linguistic experiences and those of their students. While Inez used a required textbook and “a set curriculum,” pacing plan, and “mandated components” from her district and school, she made connections to her students’ cultures and language. For example, Inez taught a unit on family tales: “From talking about my home experiences and connections to this lesson on ‘tales across time,’ some of the kids went home and talked to their families about different tales. It’s Luis Moll who talks about ‘funds of knowledge.’” In another class, students brought in family guests to the class to discuss agricultural practices in their home cultures. Inez explained: “That lesson relates to my beliefs that it’s important to connect knowledge and skills that students already have from their home to new learning.” In one lesson, Inez linked a story about an Indian immigrant to her students’ immigrant experiences, noting how the students, like the book character, are socially and culturally isolated. Inez also employed linguistic code-switching between English and Spanish to connect with students.

Alejandra connected her teaching to students’ cultures and languages. She worked closely with her Humanities team to incorporate texts that tapped her students’ cultural experiences: “The texts we choose to teach are culturally relevant. Parrot in the Oven is about this coming of age story of a 14-year-old boy. He’s a Latino boy, and the experiences he has in his family mirror a lot of the experiences that the students have.” Alejandra had her students write and discuss the biggest challenges they experienced in learning English. Alejandra often code-switched during teaching, helping students make connections through their home language. The students read texts that included Spanish language referents and discussed the common roots of words.

While Alejandra’s teaching embraced her students’ cultures, she was also committed to providing students access to the dominant culture:

Most of my kids are Latino . . . so [our Humanities team] debated . . . whether we should teach Shakespeare. It seems very inaccessible sometimes . . . But there are a couple of reasons we decided to teach them. The biggest one, I think, was the “culture of power.” We wanted students to know that we value their culture, but we also know that there is a certain culture that they need to be able to work with to experience success.

Alejandra explained, “We talk about this dual identity that kids are supposed to have. We don’t want them to erase the identity that they have now, but we also need them . . . [to have access to] this idea of the culture of power.” She was concerned with teaching her students how to present themselves in an academic setting without losing their identity. They discussed the importance of using “academic language” while maintaining their own voice and being able to code-switch in different settings. The school has a final exhibition where students present their work to community members, staff, partner university faculty, and parents. Alejandra recounted:

In preparing for the exhibition, I was really proud of them because they’re able to use all this academic language and present themselves very professionally, but they’re able to keep their identity. A lot of minorities, myself included, when we’re put in the situation where we have to present something to a group of people, we turn on a different attitude. It’s just like turning on your “White voice.” The kids didn’t do that for the most part. They were able to be professional, but they never let go of their identity of who they are.

Social justice perspective. In pursuing social justice through teaching, Inez worked to gain access to educational opportunities for her ESL students. For example, she was concerned that students were being placed at the wrong level of ESL class and thus not learning. Inez also worked to inform parents of her ESL students about how the parents could help their students gain greater access to educational opportunities in school. As we discuss in the section on school contexts later in this article, Inez’s efforts were stifled by the school’s administration.  

Alejandra imbued her teaching with social justice by discussing controversial subjects. For example, along with her department team, she had students read a book about a heroine from the Dominican Republic and tied the story to Latin American history, human rights, and social justice. The class discussed what it meant to improve people’s lives by fighting for equality and freedom. In another lesson, students reflected on their field trip to a migrant-worker camp, where they interviewed Latina/o agricultural workers about conditions related to those in the students’ class reading. The class compared the conditions that the students witnessed when picking strawberries with migrant workers to those read about in the book about migrant laborers in an earlier era, discussing how Cesar Chavez, who had organized in these very fields, changed the lives of today’s workers.


Both Inez and Alejandra saw themselves as agents of change but pursued different strategies. Inez took an adaptive stance, emphasizing “access” to schooling. Alejandra took a more transformative stance, explaining her goal as “empowering students to . . . work within the system to change the system.” In addition, Alejandra enjoyed more opportunities to perform the role of change agent. Inez’s approach was to work with Latina/o students and their parents to increase their access to schooling. She informed her ESL students and their parents about how the school limited their access to educational opportunities and spurred the parents and students to take action:

I believe that making a change in society begins in your house with dialogue, talking about what can you do to improve things in society and school. Working [at this school] is my house . . . I have lots of children here, and a lot of these children and families are in need of information and direction. Once you give them that, they can do a lot more.

Inez advocated for the parents of her ESL students, working to eliminate the language barrier that stood between the school and Spanish-speaking parents. She organized workshops in the evenings, when parents could attend, to inform them about the school’s ESL program and address their concerns. She also served as a translator for Spanish-speaking parents and tutored parents and students of Mexican descent before and after school. While not intent on “organizing my kids to go and rebel,” Inez helped her students recognize that they could take action when the school did not serve them. For example, Inez recounted a conversation with students about what they can do if the school does not appropriately transition them out of the ESL class:

If somebody tells you, “Sorry, it’s not going to happen this year [even though you tested out of ESL],” you’re going to sit for the rest of 9 weeks knowing that you could have been in regular English classes? What are you going to do? So we had a conversation . . . to motivate and organize my kids or have them organize themselves to do something.

Alejandra’s more transformative strategy centered on her students in two ways. First, she exposed students to the culture of power so that they can participate in and thus change social institutions, including schools: “There are certain things that society as a whole value and [my students] need to be able to function within that society. If they can function, they’re more likely to change it in some positive way.” Second, Alejandra drew on her experiences to teach students to recognize injustice in the educational system. She shared how tracking affected her schooling, discussing inequalities that resulted from placing Latina/o new immigrants in low tracks:

I talked to them about how tracking plays out at big, comprehensive high schools, how it played out in my high school, which was 97% Latino. There was still tracking even though everybody looked the same. There was tracking by generation, so first-generation kids would be in the lower track and kids here the longest were in the upper track.

In one class, Alejandra engaged her students in a discussion about the Civil War and abolitionism. Alejandra encouraged students to participate in the school-sponsored activity Sojourn to the Past where students visit historic sites and learn about activism associated with the civil rights movement. The conversation evolved to discuss hate groups and racism in current times, including racial conflicts between minority groups locally. She also discussed institutional racism and local instances of oppression. In one discussion, students challenged Alejandra’s distinction between individual and institutional racism, arguing that “White people run the system.” Alejandra’s response reflected her purpose for raising the issue: to engage students in changing society. She explained, “The system has a lot of problems, but you can’t just write it off, because then you’re never going to change it.” She described how at her school she felt enabled to address social justice: “We don’t shy away from controversial issues that are not necessarily presented at other schools.” Alejandra was careful not to be seen as an “angry Chicana” but as a person “who worked to change the system from within.” Her view of how teaching contributes to change mirrored this:   

Society isn’t perfect. There’s still a lot of racist beliefs and structures in place and a lot of socioeconomic discrimination . . . I know my students are very angry at who they think gets privilege and who gets all the resources . . . I need to be able to give them the tools so . . . they can build the path so there can be more people like them [who] can succeed.

In the spring of 2006, the United States was engaged in a debate over legislation that, in the minds of some, posed a threat to undocumented immigrants and Latina/o immigrants in particular. Inez’s and Alejandra’s schools served communities that were heavily populated by Latina/os and, thus, deeply affected by the debate. In this cultural and political crucible, differences in Inez’s and Alejandra’s approaches to being agents of change were heightened.

The community surrounding Inez’s school reacted strongly to the immigration debates by staging marches and demonstrations. Three hundred students from Inez’s school walked out to join the protests. Students jumped over fences; others opened gates though the school was in “lockdown.” Inez acted on her obligation to ensure her students’ safety by enforcing school rules. She described a challenging moment when she tried to keep students from jumping over the school gate: “I just see a huge crowd of kids with signs. I was in their way . . . I tried to hold them back. I stood by the gate . . . I can’t make choices for the kids. I was there to protect them.” At one point during this exchange, Inez exhorted students to get off the fence and remain in school. A student responded by yelling, “You’re a traitor. You’re also Latina, also Mexican, and why aren’t you allowing us to do this?” Inez explained that she “didn’t take it personal,” but admitted, “I felt bad about what they screamed at me, but I wanted them to know that it’s not right to leave the campus . . . I felt bad, and I couldn’t do anything to talk to them.”

Alejandra’s response to the immigration debates reflected her approach to pursuing change within the system. Many students initially wanted to walk out and join protests in the community. Alejandra sought to provide her students with an alternative that would enable them to learn about the immigration issues as well as give them a voice. On the day when many students planned to walk out in solidarity with an economic protest, Alejandra debated whether she should join them. She decided that she was needed at school to teach students who chose to attend. Alejandra planned to discuss the immigration issues in her advisory. She discovered that students were “passionate” about the issue and willing to take action: “I had to do something ’cause . . . I had to practice what I preached in class. I couldn’t just say you gotta get involved, get your voices heard, and then have this opportunity come up and just sit in the background.” Thus, Alejandra and her students formulated a strategy to educate other students about the immigration debate by developing a flyer and having pairs of students visit other advisories as a “teach in.”

After Alejandra’s students completed their presentations, the students told her that they now wanted to march. She took this to the school’s administrators, who were apprehensive because the school is located in an affluent neighborhood outside the low-income community where the students lived. Alejandra informed her students of the concern. A student who had participated in Sojourn to the Past suggested they model their march after the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. When another student asked how they could control the marchers, the student suggested that everyone sign a contract, which yet another student insisted include the six principles of nonviolence. On a Friday afternoon, about 100 students, or one third of the student body, and a number of teachers assembled to march. Alejandra led the marchers, who silently walked in pairs down the main street and passed out flyers. The students marched peacefully, even when some local bystanders made harassing gestures. Alejandra reflected on her role: “I always say you need to care, you need to be passionate . . . [My role is] to allow the students to get their voices heard and to make them feel like they can mobilize.”


Inez and Alejandra taught in very different schools. Inez worked in a large, district-run public school; Alejandra worked in a small, public charter school, affiliated with a university, that wielded greater local autonomy than traditional schools. More importantly, the two schools differed in the availability of organizational capital and in the nature of power relations. Inez’s school provided little social, human, or multicultural capital and was characterized by power relations that emphasized little teacher control. These conditions presented major challenges to Inez performing the three cultural/professional roles. Alejandra worked in a school whose mission focused on advancing the academic interests of students from nondominant cultural and linguistic communities. Alejandra’s school tended to invest in social, human, and multicultural capital and engage in power relations that supported her performing the three cultural/professional roles. Yet even in Alejandra’s school, the conditions produced some challenges.

School Capital

The lack of social, human, and multicultural capital at Inez’s school hindered her ability to perform as a role model and culturally/linguistically responsive teacher. A relative absence of social capital challenged Inez’s efforts to be a role model for Latina/o students. She found it difficult to develop social links within school because she had little time to engage students outside class: “Building relationships, you need time, and unfortunately, I have so many things going on that sometimes I can’t spend . . . after school time or before school or lunch time.” A shortage of human capital exacerbated Inez’s situation. Because few members of staff possessed the human and multicultural capital of fluency in Spanish, Inez was called upon daily to serve as translator between school officials and Spanish-speaking parents, reducing her time to see students. When her ESL coordinator left in the middle of Inez’s 2nd year, she was made ESL co-coordinator but given no release time because high faculty turnover left Inez as the most senior teacher in the department, further reducing the time she had to meet with students.

The shortage of social capital also hindered Inez’s efforts to engage in CLRT by not providing avenues through which she could tap the knowledge of senior colleagues. This was reflected in the isolation and marginalization of the ESL department. Initially, Inez felt supported by the ESL coordinator and ESL department colleagues, with whom she met every 2 weeks and shared teaching strategies. The coordinator left midyear and was not replaced. Inez attributed his departure to “a hostile environment where anything he fought for in our ESL department was shut down [by administration].” She added:

I do feel a sense of isolation because I belong to the ESL department, which is the minority at this school. We don’t have a coordinator, and he was our support . . . now things are not getting done . . . we don’t meet actually as a department anymore.

The absence of social capital was also evident in the school’s approach to professional development. Teachers had requested time to share knowledge about instructional strategies (a form of human capital) during professional development. However, Inez observed that administrator-driven sessions did not provide time for teachers to interact and share ideas.

Another manifestation of the lack of social capital was the absence of support for new teachers. Inez did not begin teaching until the middle of the year and was not assigned a mentor, which is mandated by the state. Nor did Inez have a mentor in subsequent years because, as an administrator reported, support for new teachers had been eliminated due to funding constraints. In the absence of a formal mentor, the ESL coordinator supported Inez during the first part of her 2nd year, observing her practice and providing some materials. However, he left midyear. Inez hoped that professional communities would develop when, in her 3rd year, the school adopted a small communities model. However, Inez was moved to a different area in the school, distancing her from her ESL colleagues. She also explained that, because her colleagues had different lunch periods, “We can’t get together and talk about our work and help each other out.” Moreover, the large size of her school made connecting with students and colleagues a challenge.

It appeared that Inez would receive support in the form of social and human capital from the Academic English Mastery Program (AEMP), which was adopted by her district and school. AEMP focuses on “acquisition of school language, literacy and learning in students for whom Standard English is not native” (School website, n.d.). In her 3rd year of teaching, Inez attended AEMP seminars, which provided social capital through contact with colleagues and trainers and human capital in the form of reading materials and teaching strategies. She also had access to social capital in her school by meeting with a colleague in her ESL department to discuss AEMP strategies and materials related to the students’ cultures. However, Inez reported that the program had “not been as successful in implementation,” estimating that about 6 of the approximately 100 teachers at her school participated in any of the AEMP workshops.

Furthermore, the school’s lack of multicultural capital was evident in limitations to curricular and pedagogical approaches that met the needs of nondominant cultural/linguistic students, a hostile environment toward ESL that, according to Inez, was the reason for her chair leaving, and resistance to connecting with parents and their cultural resources. Inez grew up and lives in the community where her school is located. Thus, she worked to build bridges to her students’ families. She engaged in activities that tapped parents’ knowledge, asking students to bring their families’ perspectives into the classroom. She sought support from her students’ parents: “So parents are now my source of communication, who I can talk to, and they talk to me, and we can try to brainstorm ideas on improving [the school].” Because Inez’s school did not value multicultural capital, she met with resistance from the administration for trying to engage ESL parents (discussed below). Inez began to wonder if she should remain at the school, given the administration’s resistance to her work with parents. In the end, she remained committed to her ESL students and the community: “Doors are being shut, and there’s all these different barriers [between parents and the school] . . . I’ve decided to stay and to work around these issues because my parents and my kids do need me. I need them also so I have motivation and support.” Despite or perhaps because of Inez’s strained relations with her school’s administration, she was pursuing an administrative credential: “A lot of what I’m studying . . . as an [administrative] student . . . I come here and I see it. Then I want to do something about it.”

In contrast to Inez’s experiences, Alejandra’s school provided social capital that enabled teachers to build close relations with students and receive support from colleagues. The school is a product of the small schools movement and was designed to take advantage of opportunities provided by the small enrollment and small staff to develop interpersonal relations. A daily advisory program enabled teachers to remain connected with a cohort of students and families for 4 years:

The advisory system makes sure that every teacher has some strong connection with a group of students. That’s where my background comes in helping me build those connections with the . . . ELL kids . . . You become much more family-like in advisory since you know the kids for so long.

In whole-staff and grade-level meetings, the faculty discussed what it means to establish relationships with their students. In these meetings, Alejandra used the school’s social capital to access colleagues’ knowledge, or human capital, about building relations with students.

Alejandra was supported by her school’s commitment to CLRT, which is reflected in the school’s mission, its emphasis on multicultural capital, and its considerable investment of social capital and power relations to support CLRT. The school’s mission is to prepare students from nondominant cultures for the world beyond high school, including college and work. Alejandra noted, “This is a focus of the school. They try to make things culturally relevant to . . . the kids that we serve . . . the school connects its curriculum to the cultural backgrounds of its students.” This is reflected in a norm that encourages the staff to discuss issues of race. Alejandra observed, “A culture of talking about race/ethnicity in staff meetings . . . Even one-on-one informally people [are] talking about this.” She added, “Cultural relevance and social justice are embedded in everything we do, in the way we run the school, and the way we talk about students.”

The school’s mission is evident in the investment of multicultural capital in the school’s curriculum. For example, seniors were engaged in a voter-registration project to educate community members about ballot issues and candidates and to register people in the community to vote. The school was also involved in Sojourn to the Past, a program that takes students to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit historic sites and activists associated with the civil rights movement. Alejandra noted, “[Students] don’t have to abandon their culture to get an education. They are not entering a White people’s world. It can be their world, too, and they can maneuver within it and still be Black or still be Mexican.”

Teachers in Alejandra’s school have access to considerable social capital, which supports CLRT by providing access to knowledge and skills (a form of human capital), through teacher collaboration and formal efforts to support new teachers. Teachers exert significant influence in making decisions about curriculum and instruction. Alejandra drew strength from her 9th- and 10th-grade Humanities team, which met frequently to discuss issues and share human capital related to culture and teaching. She explained: “Every time we choose a book, we think very deeply about why [are we] going choose it. Would students be able to tap into it? What are we going to teach them and what are we going to prioritize?” As the founding principal explained, the school was committed to building a professional culture that supported CLRT: “The interest in building a professional culture at our school is pretty central to our mission.” She continued: “I have no problem going up to [teachers] or talking about English language development or talking about specific students or talking about curriculum.”

Alejandra’s school provided strong support for novice teachers. In addition to being supported by a grade-level team, Alejandra received support from two sources beyond her school: (a) mentors provided by a new teacher project and (b) faculty in her teacher education program. She met weekly with her mentor, who, in the mentor’s words, “[put] into place whatever is needed for [Alejandra] to be successful in the classroom.” Alejandra also remained linked to university faculty, who “assist us in delivering appropriate curriculum to these kids.”

Alejandra faced some school challenges to teaching in culturally/linguistically responsive ways. A minor deficit in social capital arose when her Humanities team had difficulty scheduling a meeting with a music teacher to develop a multidisciplinary, multicultural unit. A drawback for teachers who had the freedom to develop culturally/linguistically responsive curriculum was the lack of textbooks. Alejandra explained that the teachers had to collect materials because multicultural texts were not available. A more serious challenge for Alejandra was having to balance two components of the school’s multicultural capital: her students’ cultures and the culture of power. She observed, “It is hard to strike a balance between having [students] be proud of who they are in their culture, but at the same time having them accept the mainstream culture and how to work within the mainstream culture.” She recognized that students could not identify with the culture of power and that it threatened their identity:

It’s not their culture. It’s not what they know, so why should they be expected to take it up . . . if they don’t see a connection they feel like . . . we’re trying to give them a different identity, forget where they come from.  

This tension is reflected in two school conditions that challenged Alejandra as a culturally/linguistically responsive teacher. First, the school culture reflected the students’ home cultures and the culture of power. The school supports the inclusion of students’ cultures in the curriculum. However, the school and its sponsoring university emphasize the traditional goal of having students attend college, which is symbolized by the placement of the logos of elite colleges and universities on classroom doors. Included was the crest of the elite university that Alejandra attended (the school’s sponsoring university), which, as she explained, distanced her from her Latina/o students. Thus, the school embodies the tension that Alejandra experienced: being a change agent in the education system while being changed by the system in which she works. Second, in the final year of this study, Alejandra’s school was placed in program improvement status by the state’s accountability system because the school failed to meet its target test score in Language Arts. She explained:

To keep the charter, we need to have a certain Annual Yearly Progress so there is definitely a big push . . . we have staff meetings devoted to analyzing scores, what can we do, what specific strategies can we use school-wide . . . to help increase scores.

She found that the focus on raising test scores had reduced cultural responsiveness in the curriculum:

We have a whole unit developed, this huge unit devoted to the civil rights movement, and this huge unit devoted to South Africa because it’s very much culturally relevant . . . those units have to get pushed to later because they’re not on the test.

Reflecting on the accountability pressure, Alejandra revisited the delicate balance that she maintained between cultural responsiveness and the culture of power: “I feel that we found a way to work with it . . . I think this is a reality that the kids are gonna have to face . . . Standardized testing is just a part of educational life.” She acknowledged that the longer she taught the less angry she got about the tests because she realized that “it’s not productive” and found herself accommodating. Again, Alejandra had been changed by the school and the education system in which she worked.

Alejandra explained that her school supported teachers who were agents of change: “Because our whole school is built around the premise of social justice, you just do things that are social justice-y.” The overall culture of social justice and change is reflected in the multicultural capital with which the school infused many activities. For example, Alejandra recounted several projects through which the school pursued change in the racially and culturally nondominant communities from which the school drew most of its students: registering voters, tutoring elementary-aged children, and providing civil rights activities and education.

Alejandra’s school presented two challenges to performing as a change agent. First, the small school’s faculty was burdened by its many responsibilities, thus taxing its human capital:

[This school] thrusts anybody . . . into leadership roles very quickly. It’s just the nature of teaching at a small school that’s underfunded and doesn’t have all the adults it needs to run it. There is a tension . . . you have these young energetic people who want to do great things but don’t realize the effect it’s having, and before you know it you’re burnt out.

This contributed to high teacher turnover, further taxing the school’s human capital with so many novices.

Second, the school had a tenuous relationship with the community from which the school drew students, thus limiting social capital:

It’s been a huge challenge for us to get parents involved. We have done parent meetings and we don’t have very good turnout and we’re trying to get parents to take on leadership roles in the parent meetings, but it’s really difficult.

She explained that the school was not located in the community where students lived but in a neighboring, more affluent community, and how one administrator:

did a lot of talking in the community, so he would go to the churches and community centers . . . He received really good feedback about that, cause we’re not in [the community] . . . and for the most part we expect parents to come to us.

She noted how this geographic anomaly did create a challenge: “We’re not in the community, so it’s harder to see us as the community school.” This literal distance revealed a figurative distance that Alejandra at times experienced between herself and the community as reflected in her sense of no longer being of the community since having attended college and becoming a teacher.

Power Structures and Relations

Power relations in Inez’s school emphasized controlling students because of its large size and racial tensions, which restricted the relationships she could have with students. She noted, “We at times treat . . . our students in a very boot camp-like way.” Inez and her colleagues exerted little influence in making decisions about curriculum and instruction in their school, elements found in district-run, large urban schools. This undermined her efforts to engage in CLRT. While a site council ostensibly governed the school, for the most part the administration adopted and enforced policies and programs with which teachers were expected to comply. Inez explained, “Most of curriculum comes from up in the top and trickles down. We are told we have to teach this and that.” Inez and her colleagues largely attributed these power relations to the school’s “program improvement status” as a low-performing school. In attempting to raise test scores, the district and school required teachers to use what the ESL coordinator characterized as a “set curriculum,” which included a pacing guide. Inez explained that the district “mandates” specific outcomes, including portfolios with certain components that students must master linked to a pacing plan. She noted that this pacing plan posed difficulties because she found it necessary to slow down and review material with her ESL students. All materials were in English, forcing Inez to translate and create Spanish forms. Inez said the school’s emphasis on test scores compromised cultural relevance:

Our kids have these funds of knowledge. When you bring that to class . . . a lot of kids can relate. Once you take them out of that context, give them testing and read something not that relevant, then they are at a disadvantage . . . When it comes to testing, I have no control . . . I have to set aside anything I believe is more important or . . . culturally relevant.

Power relations also confronted Inez with two challenges to acting as an agent of change. First, Inez believed the small number of Latina/o teachers in her school prevented them from having much impact, leading her to emphasize the need for involving Latina/o parents: “We are a small population of Latino teachers at this school so it’s really hard to get anything done for our kids unless we get parent involvement.” Second, Inez faced a control-oriented administration that challenged her efforts to develop social capital with parents and the community:

There’s a little tension between administration and myself . . . because I’m providing parents with information in reference to what they can do to help their kids or how they can become more involved in the school. I’m not sure . . . that I’m getting support for holding these parent meetings. On the contrary . . . I’m being looked at [as] you’re not supposed to be doing this or why are you getting parents too informed.

Indeed, an assistant principal explained that Inez had difficulty “understanding policy and procedure.” When Inez wanted to take families to a local restaurant to hold a meeting, this administrator emphasized that Inez needed to “make sure you’re not liable if something happens.” Inez noted that during her 2nd year no administrator had observed her teaching until the conflict arose regarding her work with parents. Then, the assistant principal visited Inez’s class four times in 1 week. The administrator did not explain how Inez was to be evaluated nor did she receive feedback. By the end of Inez’s 3rd year, she lamented the difficulty of sustaining relationships with parents given the school’s policy of “closed gates.”

The administration’s response to the immigration debates and subsequent student activism reflects this same control orientation. The school was placed on “lockdown,” gates were closed, and students were confined to their classrooms. Inez recalled, “There’s helicopters, there’s police officers surrounding us, and basically, it’s impacted our community as a whole.” The following day, the principal gave a 25-minute lecture over the intercom about the facts of immigration and the importance of staying on campus, explaining that, if students leave campus, the school must contact the police because it is responsible for the students’ safety.

Power relations were quite different in Alejandra’s school. She had direct access to and the support of her school’s administrators. This provided Alejandra with social capital through which she gained access to human capital in the form of knowledge that supported her performance as a role model. She explained how the principal, a Latina, and the dean of students discussed role modeling: “In conversations, [we discuss] what my role is in setting an example for the students, how responsible should I feel, what’s my role.” The school’s commitment to CLRT is evident in relatively egalitarian power relations. Alejandra directly benefited from consulting with the school’s administrators. She reported receiving support from her principal: “[She] is an amazing principal . . . I really feel like she looks out for our best interest.” In Alejandra’s monthly meetings with the principal, she discussed challenges confronting her as a teacher. She also met with the dean of students, who was Alejandra’s cooperating teacher during student teaching, about cultural issues and teaching. The school’s approach to hiring teachers reflected its dedication to CLRT. Teachers joined administrators on interview teams. Alejandra noted that, to be a good fit, one needed to be a culturally/linguistically responsive teacher: “In some of the interview questions we ask, that comes up. We get a feel for the teachers, how they will fit in, how they are going to work with curriculum and expand it to reach the needs of all students.” Alejandra may also have been able to pursue social justice approaches with high school students more readily than Inez, who taught in a middle school.

Power relations in Alejandra’s small charter school also supported teachers’ efforts to act as agents of change. Alejandra reported that the school encouraged teachers to advocate for and empower students: “I think the fact that they give us so much power to empower the students really allows . . . students to then advocate for themselves.” This was evident in the administration’s response to the march that Alejandra and her advisory students organized. Alejandra felt she needed to go to the administrators, who expressed misgivings about the potential impact on the affluent neighborhood surrounding the school. After Alejandra and her students shared their plans for conducting a silent, nonviolent march, and responded to the concerns, administration gave its support. After the march, the principal recounted, “I was really proud of them, that they did it so smoothly and without any incident and were nonviolent and thoughtful.” The school credited the work of students who taught others or organized the march as part of the Senior Exhibition graduation requirement.


This study reveals that Inez and Alejandra were both deeply committed to increasing learning opportunities for Latina/o students by performing as role models, culturally and linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change in education. The teachers’ commitments were fueled by early personal and professional experiences. Inez and Alejandra succeeded academically despite attending schools that presented few educational opportunities and depreciated the cultural resources of students from nondominant communities. Both were inspired by teachers who served as role models and motivated them to do the same for their students. Inez and Alejandra graduated from teacher education programs with strong social justice orientations and coursework that encouraged and supported CLRT. However, the teachers’ opportunities to perform the three cultural/professional roles were shaped by the schools in which these teachers worked, marking the challenges and support that school capital and power relations can present.

These findings highlight two major themes. First, the findings reveal parallels between Latina/o youth’s experiences of “subtractive schooling” that previous research reported as divesting cultural resources of students from nondominant communities and experiences of Latina new teachers in their organizational contexts. Second, the intersection of the teachers’ personal/professional backgrounds and school contexts resulted in these new teachers of color being change(d) agents—both agents of change and subjected to change by the system in which the teachers work.


A comparison of Inez’s and Alejandra’s case studies sheds light on the relationship between organizational conditions and the cultural/professional roles of Latina new teachers, revealing a spectrum of more and less supportive contexts (see Table 1). Inez faced more daunting challenges, while on the whole Alejandra received substantial support in the form of social, human, and multicultural capital and positive power relations.  

Table 1. Spectrum of Organizational Contexts in Relation to Cultural/Professional Roles of New Teachers of Color


Subtractive Schooling

Inez’s school did not provide her with social, human, or multicultural capital, and the school’s power relations, which concentrated on controlling students and teachers, provided few opportunities to perform the three cultural/professional roles to which she was committed. The challenges that Inez faced as a Latina teacher resemble the conditions that Valenzuela (1999) characterized as “subtractive schooling,” which builds upon theories on the “subtractive cultural assimilation” of immigrant/ethnic minority youth and concepts of “schooling” as socially reproductive (Cummins, 1984; Gibson, 1993; Giroux, 1983 Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1997). Valenzuela’s 3-year ethnographic study of a Houston public school whose students were predominantly Mexican documents how the school subtracted social and cultural resources from U.S.-Mexican youth, making them vulnerable to academic failure. Valenzuela described how subtractive schools are organized to perpetuate inequality in three ways. First, school structures, such as academic tracking, deprive students of Mexican descent of equal educational opportunities, and “cultural tracking” separates ESL students from other students of Mexican descent, resulting in status hierarchy, limited mobility, and undermining of the accumulation of social capital and ultimately human capital through their exchanges. Second, the curriculum is biased against Mexican culture and Spanish language, thus divesting Mexican students of their culture and language, which are necessary for learning. The school’s “informal curriculum” undermined youth’s definition of educación as building a sense of moral, personal, and social responsibility among Mexican youth and a culture of authentic caring among students and between students and teachers. Third, weak relations exist between schools and the Latina/o communities the schools serve. The school was characterized by a lack of communication between school and home, typically included no translations, insufficient numbers of bilingual counselors, and PTA parents reported little interest from faculty to participate. Inez’s case reveals that these same three organizational characteristics were present in her school, challenging her ability to perform cultural/professional roles that inspired her to enter teaching.

Tracking Challenges: Social and Human Capital

Inez’s sense of “isolation” in the marginalized ESL program was a structured form of “teacher tracking” that limited her access to social capital (connection to other colleagues and parents), which along with the loss of her ESL coordinator limited access to developing human capital. While Inez was drawn to teach in the ESL program because of her commitments to utilizing her linguistic resources, she encountered resistance from the school to supporting ESL students and their families. Inez explained that the ESL coordinator left the school because of a hostile environment where advocating for the ESL department was shut down by administration. She lost his professional support and mentoring, and she received no other formal mentoring (although mandated by the state). The absence of teacher-centered professional development and new teacher mentoring deprived Inez of access to colleagues who might possess knowledge and skills pertinent to teaching in culturally and linguistically responsive ways. In her 2nd year of teaching, she was the most senior in her department because of high turnover in their program, made co-coordinator, not given release time, and continued to act as the school’s sole translator. She was physically isolated from ESL colleagues and did not share a lunch period, and thus could not coordinate their work. Moreover, Inez described how ESL parents were marginalized by the school and her attempts to connect and support them were undermined by administrators.

Curriculum Challenges: Multicultural Capital and Power Relations

Inez also experienced the kind of curriculum bias against nondominant culture and language that Valenzuela described. Lacking multicultural capital and teacher influence in decision-making on curriculum and instruction, the school’s mandated curriculum and pacing guide, and focus on testing, left little room for content that was culturally and linguistically responsive to her Latina/o Spanish speakers. All instructional materials were in English, forcing Inez to translate and create Spanish materials. Further, she was tied to a set curriculum and pacing guide that did not meet the needs of English-language learners. Teaching focused on testing did not draw on students’ funds of knowledge and made her “set aside” teaching in culturally/linguistically responsive ways. While her school was involved in the AEMP program that provided strategies related to the students’ cultures, Inez reported that the program had “not been as successful in implementation,” with only 6 teachers involved.

Even in the informal or “hidden curriculum” (Giroux & Purpel, 1983) in schools that promote norms of behavior and interaction in accord with the dominant culture, Inez faced constraints that undermined her commitment to being a role model and building the authentic caring relations with Latina/o youth that Valenzuela described. Inez’s original reason for entering teaching was based on her experience tutoring in a housing project where she found that students had lost their motivation to learn because “teachers just didn’t care.” Inez wanted to care for her students, to serve as a role model, and connect with and support them. However, she also faced barriers to this due to the way the school was structured, which limited opportunities to connect with students outside class, and additional responsibilities (translating, co-coordinator of the ESL program) that pulled her from her classroom. Inez also identified power relations and a “culture of control” with students because of the school’s large size and racial tensions, which restricted the relationships she could have with students. Finally, her experience during the immigration debates where she stood at the schoolhouse gates and found students questioning her loyalty and connection to their cause as she enacted school policies of the lockdown reveal the double bind that she faced as her school pitted her against the community.

School-Community Divisions: Social and Multicultural Capital

Inez experienced weak relations between the school and the Latina/o community the school served. Ultimately, this limited access to social capital (and parent allies) and multicultural capital (from the resources the community offered). The administration’s efforts to limit Inez’s connections to Latina/o and ESL parents and the lack of bilingual staff also undermined accessing cultural resources from the broader community. The school’s lock-down response when community members and students organized during the immigration debates echoed the barriers to community access and interests. The small number of teachers and staff members who were Spanish/English bilingual compromised the school’s relations with its students’ families and community. Few members of the school’s staff could even speak with the majority of the parent community. Inez was questioned about meeting with parents in the community (i.e., meeting with parents at a local restaurant seemed to break the rules), and administrators directly challenged her about her organizing ESL parents to educate and connect them to the school.

The prevalence of these challenges is evident in the findings of other studies about Latina/o teachers and teachers of color more broadly. New teachers of color may not be supported in ways that acknowledge, value, and develop the teachers’ cultural practices (Irvine, 2003; Sheets, 2005). Thus, becoming a professional can mean leaving one’s cultural assets at the schoolhouse door. People of color may enter teaching with a vision of utilizing their cultural and linguistic resources to contribute to transforming the educational system and may have even experienced a teacher education program that fostered such approaches. However, new teachers of color may find themselves working in schools that do not support cultural/professional roles.

Additive Schooling

In contrast to Inez’s school, Alejandra’s school invested capital in all forms and cultivated power relations that tended to support her performing three cultural/professional roles. This school might be viewed as providing a more “additive” organizational context, which affords opportunities to tap rather than suppress cultural and linguistic resources and commitments of Latina new teachers. Alejandra’s school emphasized social capital by building community, which linked teachers to students and their families through advisories, and professional norms and structures of teacher collaboration and new teacher support. The school’s human capital was exhibited in hiring faculty committed to CLRT, access to the expertise of faculty at the school’s partner university, and provided mentoring for new teachers to help them develop culturally/linguistically responsive and socially just practices. Alejandra’s school’s multicultural capital was revealed in the school’s social justice mission, its curricular focus on CLRT, and its teacher and student activities that fostered activism. Moreover, Alejandra’s school supported positive power relations through consensus-based, shared decision-making and teacher control over curriculum development, which enabled teachers to engage in CLRT.

Studies of schools where Latina/o students are successful identified school characteristics that parallel the conditions that supported Alejandra’s performance of cultural/professional roles and help to articulate “additive schooling” for teachers. Garcia (2004) noted that schools structured toward more culturally and linguistically responsive approaches: (a) value diversity, which orients teachers to access students’ cultural resources; (b) treat teachers as professionals and colleagues in making school decisions, which establishes relations among professionals that mirror instructional activities that build on prior knowledge and collaboration; (c) eliminate policies that categorize diverse students in ways that render their educational experiences inferior, which establishes norms encouraging academically challenging work; and (d) connect to parents and community, which reveal norms supporting instruction built on students’ cultural resources.

It is important to note that Alejandra’s school with its clear mission of social justice and CLRT also presented challenges to drawing on her cultural resources and the cultural and linguistic resources of Latina/o students. Although teachers were supported in developing culturally/linguistically responsive curriculum, they had difficulty obtaining instructional materials and were limited in their ability to incorporate culturally/linguistically responsive content at times because their school, like Inez’s, faced the pressure of having to raise test scores. In addition, Alejandra’s school struggled to make authentic and sustained relations with parents and serve as a source of social capital. The school building was not based within the community the school served (creating a literal and figurative distance), and parent engagement in school-based activities remained an ongoing challenge. While Alejandra’s school supports the inclusion of students’ cultures in the curriculum, the school also emphasizes the traditional goal of having students attend college, which is symbolized by the placement of the logos of elite colleges and universities on classroom doors. One of those logos included Alejandra’s alma mater, which was a site that she identified as creating a distance between herself and her home culture. Alejandra described the challenge of balancing the inclusion of students’ home cultures with the culture of power, explaining that students resisted the culture of power because they could not identify with it, and it threatened their identity. Thus, while Alejandra’s school empowered teachers to engage in CLRT, the school also expected teachers to adhere to traditional school norms.

Change(d) Agents

The intersection of the teachers’ personal/professional backgrounds and school contexts resulted in these new teachers of color being change(d) agents—both agents of change and subjected to change by the system in which the teachers work. While they entered the profession influenced by personal commitments to change the system through their cultural/professional roles and were bolstered in these commitments by learning about socially just and culturally responsive practices in their preservice programs, the teachers were challenged and thus changed by the norms encountered in the education system.

The contrasts between culturally subtractive and additive schooling described above are rooted in the historic tensions between the reproductive and transformational purposes of schools in the United States (Giroux, 1983). Schools tend to emphasize reproduction, reinforcing dominant forms of cultural capital and thus working against the interests of nondominant racial and cultural communities (Bourdieu, 1984; McEneaney & Meyer, 2000). Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) documented that institutional and structural racism continue to mark schools, as reflected in “subtractive schooling.” These conditions impact teachers of color and their students of color.

Inez’s and Alejandra’s schools bore these institutional marks but differed in their placement on the ideological spectrum that ranges from schooling for social reproduction to schooling for transformation. Inez’s school reinforced the marginalized status of Latinos and their community. In contrast, Alejandra’s school tended to support CLRT and social justice. Yet the school still confronted Alejandra with the challenge of initiating Latina/o students into the culture of power that raised questions about leaving home culture behind or becoming transformed in the process. The contradictions that she first encountered at college when she transformed from an “angry Chicana” to “fit into the system” (changing her speech and manners) continued into her teaching experiences because the charter school where she taught, sponsored by her alma mater, reflects that same tension of retaining cultural resources while accessing the culture of power.

These schooling conditions resulted in Inez and Alejandra being changed agents, shaped by the very system they sought to change. This change is more overt in Inez’s case where her school put her at odds with her commitment to the Latino community. Recall Inez’s dramatic encounter with students who were attempting to climb the school fence to join community demonstrations against immigration reform. As Inez attempted to block the students from leaving school, students called her a “traitor” and questioned whether she was on the side of the community or the school. When Inez organized meetings to inform parents of her ESL students about how to access school services, administrators blocked her, explaining that she was violating school policy, and observed her teaching on four occasions in a single week. Moreover, the lack of support for CLRT, curricular constraints, and focus on testing meant Inez could not always enact the cultural practices that drew her to teach. While Alejandra’s school’s mission was more aligned with her commitments, she herself recognized that she had been changed by the system she sought to change. She had become distanced from the Latino community with which her school had weak ties. Students questioned her “talking White”; they resisted being initiated into the “culture of power.” Rather than initially join students who immediately planned to walk out in solidarity with community protests on immigration, Alejandra decided she was needed at school, and later when she did support activism, she had to address an administrator’s initial reluctance to sanction a march. She accommodated her school’s emphasis on raising standardized tests in response to accountability pressures. Her school displayed the logos of elite colleges, including Alejandra’s alma mater, where she began her evolution from an “angry Chicana” who changed her speech and manners to become a professional who worked within the system to change it.   

Despite the prevalence of education’s reproductive order, particularly in matters of race and culture, both case studies also document teacher agency in the face of challenges to the teachers performing cultural/professional roles. Giroux (1983) argued that reproduction theories downplay the importance of human agency and potential to challenge dominant forces. Giddens (1987) noted the presence of human agency in the face of structural determinism. Both Inez and Alejandra drew on personal resources to counter the reproductive functions of their schools and the education system. Thus, they remained committed to being agents of change.


While we acknowledge the limitations of drawing implications from the comparison of two case studies, we believe that this study’s findings justify discussing two issues: (a) a topic for further research and (b) the need and responsibility to support new teachers of color committed to serving students from low-income and nondominant cultural communities.  


Our findings suggest that further research is needed to identify school conditions that support teachers of color who attempt to act as role models, culturally/linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change. The comparison of case studies documents marked differences between Inez’s school, which on the whole was culturally subtractive, and Alejandra’s school, which was characterized by many conditions that were culturally additive. Previous research revealed the pervasiveness of the subtractive school conditions that confronted Inez. For example, studies indicate that schools lacking social capital can marginalize teachers of color, schools lacking human capital undermine support for novices, and schools lacking multicultural capital limit opportunities for teachers of color to discuss issues of race and adopt curriculum that hinder teachers of color from incorporating their cultural knowledge (Foster, 1994; Quiocho & Rios, 2000; Tellez, 1999). In contrast, few studies document culturally additive school conditions that support teachers of color in performing the cultural/professional roles that are intended to advance educational opportunities of students of color.


The results of this study also suggest that we need to support teachers of color who are committed to drawing on their cultural and linguistic resources to serve students from low-income and culturally and linguistically nondominant communities. A recent review of research on turnover among teachers of color indicates that teachers of color are more likely than White teachers to be motivated by a “humanistic orientation” to improve educational opportunities for students of color (Achinstein et al., 2010). However, research indicates that, if new teachers of color are left on their own, they may not cultivate the cultural resources needed to perform cultural/professional roles and may even leave the profession (Villegas & Lucas, 2004). They must be supported in learning the role of race, culture, and language in schooling; gaining an awareness of how the concerns of teachers of color can be marginalized and how to develop allies and advocate for their concerns; and determining ways to cultivate and employ their own and their students’ cultural/linguistic resources (Quiocho & Rios, 2000).

Inez’s and Alejandra’s cases suggest that support can come from sources within and outside schools. Within schools, school leaders and colleagues can provide support. Alejandra enjoyed the support of her principal and dean, members of her Humanities team, and a formal induction mentor. Even Inez felt supported by her school’s ESL coordinator. However, a recent review of the research indicated that relatively high proportions of teachers of color work in low-performing, urban schools with high proportions of students from low-income and nondominant cultural and linguistic communities (Achinstein et al., 2010). Many of these schools, like the school in which Inez worked, have little capital and have responded to accountability pressures by adopting scripted instructional programs and pacing guidelines, which reduce opportunities for teachers to access the cultural and linguistic resources of children from nondominant cultural communities. This suggests that many teachers of color, like Inez, work in schools that provide little support, blunting the teachers’ efforts to enhance learning opportunities for students of color. To whom can these teachers turn for support? Our study and previous research identified two sources that lie beyond schools: the teaching profession and communities.

New teachers of color, like new teachers generally, can be further supported by professional circles outside the teachers’ schools. In fact, Alejandra was sustained by her relationships with professors and former students in her teacher education program, and some of the professors provided consultation to Alejandra’s school. Research indicates that novice teachers can receive support from broader professional circles, particularly when such support networks are introduced by mentors (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006; Chubbuck, Clift, Allard, & Quinlan, 2001). What is unique for many teachers of color is that their sources of support may need to act as what Carter (2005) described as “multicultural navigators,” educators who draw from their own cultural resources and support people of color in negotiating dominant and nondominant cultures. While Carter wrote of the importance of multicultural navigators for youth of color, this study highlights the need for such support for teachers of color. This is not generic support from professional communities but support focused on unique expectations and dilemmas faced by new teachers of color as they attempt to be role models, culturally/linguistically responsive teachers, and agents of change.

Teachers of color may find further support from the communities that many are committed to serving. Indeed, Inez worked to lower barriers between her school and the parents of her students, despite the resistance of administrators. Alejandra, whose school otherwise supported her performance of cultural/professional roles, did not provide strong links to the community where its students lived. Consequently, the school did not provide Alejandra with ways to close the gap that she perceived to stand between her, as a college-educated professional, and the largely Latina/o and Spanish-speaking community. Researchers have indicated that schools, as social institutions, largely reproduce the status quo, thus working against the interests of nondominant economic, racial, cultural, and linguistic groups (Bourdieu, 1984; McEneaney & Meyer, 2000). However, an emerging body of research suggests that nondominant communities can organize grassroots initiatives to change schools from “subtractive” institutions that replicate historical inequities and injustices to “additive” cultural spaces for advancing these communities’ educational, social, economic, and political interests (Oakes & Rogers, 2006). Teachers of color may find allies in such community-based coalitions.  

Ultimately, educational leaders and policymakers will need to reconsider the organizational contexts in which new teachers of color are expected to redress inequitable learning opportunities for nondominant youth. For the same organizational contexts of schooling that limit opportunities to learn for Latina/o youth may also limit Latina/o teachers’ opportunities to learn and develop as professionals. This study reveals a tension in how new teachers of color can be agents of change and subjected to change by the system within which the teachers work. It makes little sense to employ strategies to culturally diversify the teacher workforce if new teachers of color are not provided opportunities to develop and enact the very commitments and practices for which policymakers and educators sought them out.


We wish to express our gratitude to the participating teachers in this study who shared so generously. We acknowledge the support for this research provided by the Flora Family Foundation. We recognize the significant contributions of the entire research team on the broader study on new teachers of color, including Michael Strong, Julia Aguirre, Lisa Johnson, Candice Millhollen, Anthony Villar, Sally Hewlett, Iris Weaver, Dena Sexton, Carrie Cifka-Herrera, Casia Freitas, and Anthony Kuan. We thank the New Teacher Center, University of California, Santa Cruz, Ellen Moir, its executive director, and the staff at the center. We especially want to acknowledge Ana María Villegas, Steven Z. Athanases, Geert Kelchtermans, Jeannie Oakes, Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, and Lyn Corno, and anonymous reviewers for their feedback at various points in the evolution of this article.


1. The language of naming group identification is highly contested. We use the term “teachers of color” because it is a more updated description than the term “minority,” given the shifting demographics of the nation. As Nieto (2000) noted, people of color describes groups such as African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians, and Latina/os; emerged from the communities themselves; and “implies important connections among the groups and underlines some common experiences” (p. 30) in the United States. However, a mutual history does not equate to a uniform experience. At times, we also utilize the term “people from nondominant cultural and linguistic communities.” We also reference Latina/o teachers and teachers of Mexican descent, while the teachers self-identify in many other ways (e.g., Chicano/a, Mexican American). The term “Latina/o” also reflects an enormously diverse group. It refers to people of Latin American and Caribbean heritage, while including the African and indigenous heritage as well as the Spanish heritage (Nieto, 2000). Yet these terms do not capture distinct differences of national origin, class, immigration status, gender, language, political consciousness, etc. We recognize the limitations of these terms, and our intention is not to homogenize diverse groups. We also recognize that by making claims about teachers of color from case studies of Mexican-descent teachers we run the risk of generalizing. However, concepts derived from this study may be informative beyond teachers of Mexican descent, to illuminate issues salient to teachers of color. This is particularly the case when the cultural/professional roles highlighted in this study have been attributed in the literature to varied subgroups across peoples of color.

2. We distinguish our use of multicultural capital from Bryson’s conceptualizations (1996). Bryson, extending Bourdieu (1984), focused on cultural tastes (e.g., music) and found that the primary form of status distinction among the more advantaged class in modern societies is an openness to a wide variety of cultural forms and expressions of cultural tastes.

3. In the 1st year of the study, the interviews focused on professional and personal backgrounds, interests in teaching, teaching beliefs and practices, sociocultural conceptualizations and how they influenced their vision of their teacher roles, relationships with students, preservice experiences, and support and challenges in learning to teach. In the 2nd year, which was the teachers’ 1st year of teaching, interviewers asked teachers to reflect on the lessons that the researchers had observed and continued to ask teachers about the topics addressed in the 1st-year interviews. In the 3rd and 4th years of the study, several questions were repeated from the 2nd-year protocols to check for consistency over time, while other questions pursued themes emerging from the first 2 years of data, including questions about professional beliefs, conceptions about role models, culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and socially just teaching, being agents of change, school contexts, and immigration responses.

4. All individual and school names are pseudonyms to protect the confidentiality of the participants.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 11, 2011, p. 2503-2551
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16109, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:00:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Betty Achinstein
    University of California, Santa Cruz
    E-mail Author
    BETTY ACHINSTEIN is a researcher at the Center for Educational Research in the Interest of Underserved Students at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her areas of specialization are new teacher socialization, teachers of color, induction and mentoring, and equity. Recent publications include “Retaining teachers of color: A pressing problem and a potential strategy for ‘hard-to-staff schools’” with Rodney T. Ogawa, Dena Sexton, and Casia Freitas in Review of Educational Research (2010), “Cultural match or cultural suspect: How new teachers of color negotiate socio-cultural challenges in the classroom” with Julia Aguirre in Teachers College Record (2008), and Mentors in the making: Developing new leaders for new teachers with Steven Z. Athanases, Teachers College Press (2006).
  • Rodney Ogawa
    University of California, Santa Cruz
    E-mail Author
    RODNEY T. OGAWA is professor of education and director of the Center for Educational Research in the Interest of Underserved Students at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His areas of specialization are school organization, teachers of color, educational reform, and leadership. Recent publications include “Retaining teachers of color: A pressing problem and a potential strategy for ‘hard-to-staff schools’” with Betty Achinstein, Dena Sexton, and Casia Freitas in Review of Educational Research (2010), “Improvement or reinvention: Two policy approaches to school reform” in G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. N. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy research (2009), and “CHAT/IT: Towards conceptualizing learning contexts in formal organizations” with Rhiannon Crain, Molly Loomis, and Tamara Ball in Educational Researcher (2008).
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