Five questions for Margarita Bianco

From personal and professional frustration emerged transformative program
Margarita Bianco with kids in the Katanga slum in Uganda.

Margarita Bianco with kids in the Katanga slum in Uganda.

Even in high school, Margarita Bianco knew she wanted to be a teacher: Volunteer work with a young boy who had significant support needs piqued her interest in special education. Over the years, she also developed an expertise in gifted education.

Now, as an assistant professor in the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and Human Development, she is taking all that she has learned – including some life lessons – and is working to inspire others to be educators.

One way in which she’s attracting youth to the profession is through a program she has developed. Now in its third year, the Pathways2Teaching program offers diverse urban youth the opportunity – and college credits – to explore teaching and related professions. By the end of this year, nearly 200 high-school students from three Denver high schools will have earned three college credits and gained a better understanding of educational justice.

In the coming years, Bianco hopes to expand the program to more Denver high schools and other school districts in Colorado. She’s in the early stages of developing a “train the trainer” model so that districts around the country can replicate the program.

1. Why did you develop the Pathways2Teaching project?

This is a program I’m passionate about and have devoted a lot of time and energy to. It was borne out of personal and professional frustration with a number of issues – especially those around the widening access gap for students of color and the systematic failure we have in American public schools to effectively educate students of color. One of the ways we can address that is by diversifying our teacher workforce. That’s not the only answer, but it is one way to begin to tackle this problem. Data shows that in Colorado, while we have a Latino community that is the second-largest population in state, 90 percent of the state’s teachers are white.

Margarita Bianco with Luke, a Pathways2Teaching student, on his high school graduation day in 2011.

Margarita Bianco with Luke, a Pathways2Teaching student, on his high school graduation day in 2011.

The issues of opportunity and access are huge. For many students of color, there is a spiraling effect in terms of all the barriers that are created right from primary schools to graduating from high school. For instance, gifted students of color, especially those who live in poverty, don’t have access or opportunities to participate in things like advanced placement classes or don’t have exposure to high-end curriculum so they will be prepared to engage in gifted classes.

The Pathways2Teaching program is very successful. We have a 100 percent graduation rate for all of our seniors so far. We really encourage our students to examine educational disparities they’ve experienced and critically examine why they’ve had this lack of opportunity and hopefully engage them in trying to disrupt some of these inequities by trying to become a teacher.

2. What taught you how to teach or be a teacher?

After graduating from high school, I was a teacher’s aide and worked in a special school for children who are deaf and blind and have intellectual disabilities. I was assigned to work one-on-one with a 12-year-old boy all day, every day for a full academic year. We were working on things like teaching him sign language as a way for him to communicate his needs and wants and daily living skills. He taught me how to be an effective teacher, because with him, I needed to learn to break down every skill into its most intricate detail. I learned how to teach in sequence. I couldn’t jump to Skill B until I knew he had mastered Skill A. So that taught me how to look at every skill and how skills build on each other. Beyond the technical aspects, I learned from him the power of really loving my students and wanting them to be successful and self-determined in their lives.

An event that had an impact on me both personally and professionally was becoming a mother. From that point forward, I viewed my role as a teacher differently and I view teachers differently. Now I have a personal connection and understanding with other parents about what we want for all our children, and that was something I only had superficial knowledge of before. That doesn’t mean that all teachers have to be parents to be effective, but for me, it changed my perspective of the important role that teachers have and my role in helping them.

3. What characteristics make a great teacher? Can these be taught or are they innate?

From my own perspective, one of the things a teacher has to have is high expectations for all students. They also have to have the skills, knowledge and disposition to help their students achieve those high expectations. A great teacher has to have a deep understanding of cultural differences and what it means to be a culturally responsive teacher. They also must have the skills and knowledge to engage their students in critical and deep thinking. It’s a question I have my high school students address, too. They’ll say that a great teacher is someone who’s demonstrating that they care. That’s a word that comes up a lot when I ask that question. By caring they mean somebody they can trust; someone who is there for them when they need to talk before or after school or at lunch. My students also want teachers who challenge them and make them do their work and not let them fail.

4. What would you consider one of your greatest achievements? What about a disappointment that you learned from or saw as a turning point?

On a personal level, I am proud of my son and the role I’ve played in being his mother. He’s a freshman at Columbia University and is doing really well. It’s fun to watch him grow into the man he’s becoming. Professionally, it has to be the Pathways program because I’ve seen a tremendous impact in a very short time and I look forward to seeing it grow over the next few years.

There also was a negative event that had a huge impact on me. During my senior year in high school, I had a school counselor tell me that I shouldn’t apply to college because he didn’t think I was college material. Hearing those words really shook me to the core. I knew I was bright; I knew I was talented and very capable. Here is a man in a position of authority and power telling me I wasn’t college material. Luckily, I didn’t believe him. After I had completed my undergraduate work, I applied to Columbia for graduate school. The day I received my acceptance letter, I drove to my high school to find him. I walked into his office and reminded him who I was and what he had told me years earlier. I left my acceptance letter on his desk.

I tell this story to my students for a number of reasons. I want them to understand the power of their words and how one comment can change the trajectory of somebody’s life. When I received the Rosa Parks Diversity Award, I told that story and dedicated the award to my school counselor. It wasn’t his intention, but he really motivated me to prove him wrong. And I dedicated it to all those students of color out there who, despite their intellect and abilities, have teachers who don’t believe in them. I hope my story encourages them to prove their teachers wrong, too.

5. Your work in education also extends to Africa through the Global Livingston Institute. How are you helping overseas?

I’m working with the Global Livingston Institute to build partnerships with faculty from a university in Uganda. Last fall I had the opportunity to be a guest speaker and meet with upper-level grad students, and last summer, some of our Pathways2Teaching students had the opportunity to visit. We’re in the early stages of creating a research agenda looking at the professional development needs of teachers in urban and rural communities in Uganda. I’m particularly interested in a school in northern Uganda that works with former child soldiers.