Three-time alum works to help upcoming teachers better resemble students they will lead

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.

Karina Figueroa-Ramirez’s work as the College of Education’s equity coordinator includes overseeing the College’s equity peer mentors, who in turn help support Sacramento State undergraduate students considering teaching as a profession. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

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.”

Teaching alumni to speak on campus during California Teachers Summit

More than 600 Sacramento-area educators – many of them Sacramento State alums – will come to the University this Friday for the third annual Better Together: California Teachers Summit, held concurrently at dozens of sites up and down the states.

At each of those sites, local teachers will dispense their wisdom to attendees in the form of “EdTalks,” named after the popular online TED Talks through which academics and others speak on their areas of expertise. And Sacramento State’s EdTalks will be truly Made at Sac State: Both of the day’s speakers are Hornet alumni.

“I taught for 34 years, and there weren’t a lot of conferences around like the Teachers Summit,” says Vanessa Dauterive ’82 (Liberal Studies), MA ’89 (Education), a kindergarten teacher who recently retired from the Natomas Unified School District. “It’s pretty exciting. To me, if you walk into a room and you take one thing away, you’ve taken something into your tool belt and back to the classroom that makes you a stronger teacher. It empowers you.”

Dauterive will give the summit’s afternoon EdTalk session on “Teaching with Unlimited Perspective.” “For me, it means that every child can learn when there are no preconceived notions or limitations based on race or gender,” she says.

Clay Dagler, Credential ’02, who teaches high school computer science in south Sacramento, will speak in the morning on the importance of including his subject in high school curricula. “Computer science is a huge field today,” he says. “There are a lot of jobs available, and most high schools don’t offer computer science classes.”

Dagler says Sacramento State provided him not just with practical skills to use in the classroom like lesson planning, but also the relational and communications skills essential to working as an educator.

“I’m from a really small town that’s not as diverse as Sacramento,” he says. “Sac State taught me how to connect with the parents and the students. Definitely the nuts and bolts, but also the relationship piece.”

For Dauterive, it was the relationships she built while a student on campus, and the lessons that stemmed from those relationships, that were most helpful once she began her career.

“I had two teachers who were a guiding light for me,” she says. “Sac State and those two teachers made me a stronger teacher and a more confident teacher, and helped me to know what my value was in the classroom and what I could bring to the classroom.”

To learn more about the California Teachers Summit, visit cateacherssummit.com.