Before college, Karina Figueroa-Ramirez had never been in a class led by a Latinx teacher.
When she became a teacher years later, many people assumed she either taught Spanish or kindergarten.
“What really made me think was when people would tell me I didn’t look like a teacher,” Figueroa-Ramirez said. “What does a teacher look like?”
Throughout California, education faces a major challenge: Teachers of the state’s K-12 students don’t reflect the state’s diversity. That means, like Figueroa-Ramirez, a child can go through school never seeing someone who looks like them at the front of the classroom.
Today, the three-time Sacramento State alumna is drawing on that experience at her alma mater, where she is the College of Education’s equity coordinator. Through her work, she plays a leading role in the College’s efforts to recruit, retain and graduate into the teaching profession first-generation, multi-cultural and multi-lingual students.
Figueroa-Ramirez’s primary job responsibility is advising students both within and outside the College of Education who might be considering teaching. When meeting with students, she works to learn and understand their academic and professional goals, so that she is better able to anticipate their questions and connect them to on- and off-campus resources.
She also oversees the College’s educational equity peer mentors and is heavily involved in campus outreach efforts, such as establishing and maintaining “Future Teacher Clubs” at local high schools and community colleges.
“It’s a privilege to lead efforts in this capacity” she said. “I’m honored to have that opportunity to work with our students and guide them through their academic and professional journeys.”
In much of her work, Figueroa-Ramirez draws upon her own background as a first-generation college student and now a first-generation educator. She came to Sacramento State to study government, with a goal of working in policy. When one of her classmates suggested teaching, she couldn’t help but laugh.
“I said, ‘Me a teacher? You’re funny. No absolutely not,’ ” she said. “In retrospect, I think that was my reaction because I didn’t want to be vulnerable and I didn’t want to expose my insecurities in that setting, which were very obvious.
“I didn’t feel I had what it took to be a teacher. Growing up, I didn’t see teachers who represented my background, experiences and worldview.”
But others, including her father, continued to encourage her, as did a prominent staffer at the state Capitol, where she was a legislative intern, working on matters that included education bills. She started visiting schools and substitute teaching and eventually realized she was enjoying herself. Having earned her bachelor’s degree in 2005, she returned to Sacramento State for her credential and worked as a high school social science and history teacher. In 2012, she earned her master’s degree in bilingual and multicultural education.
Sacramento State was a welcoming community. Figueroa-Ramirez said her classes, faculty and fellow students helped validate, for the first time, experiences she had growing up as a Latina, including experiences such as microaggression and being ostracized.
The College of Education, with its emphasis on social justice, also challenged her to think differently about students. She learned to not define them by their deficits – for example, a “problem child” who inevitably will disrupt class – but instead by their potential.
“We work with students with a restorative lens,” she said. “Instead of judging students or treating them with a deficit way of thinking, we were trained to do the opposite, to see the best in students and how we may be agents of change in the classroom.”
In 2016, Figueroa-Ramirez returned to the University as an employee, and has spent much of the past three-plus years working to help ensure the next generation of teachers is more diverse and culturally competent.
Although it’s too soon to tell how well those efforts are paying off, some anecdotal evidence encourages her. The number of students graduating with a bilingual authorization has increased, and one education faculty member told her that he had never before seen as many Spanish-speaking students. In addition to Spanish-speakers, Figueroa-Ramirez also is working to increase the number of teaching candidates who earn a bilingual authorization in Hmong, a major need in California.
“To give voice to the voiceless, we need to have teachers who will work toward social justice, access and equity,” she said. “Research shows and points to the fact that students are more successful when they see themselves in their teachers. It’s such a powerful profession that provides access to the masses – time every day with students.”