Sarina Baker '11 on Cultural Mirrors

Amy Barnard

Currently a second grade teacher at Lucy Laney Elementary School in North Minneapolis and a Ed.D Candidate at Concordia, Sarina Baker works relentlessly to help her students of color see themselves in history, culture, and the future. Her long-term goal is to become a school principal.

Image of stats on increased likelihood of black students to graduate when they have had at least one or two black teachers.

 

Q&A

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Your transition to Minnehaha Academy was a bit of a culture shock. Can you share a little about that?

I loved Minnehaha. The community really welcomed me. 

I played basketball when I came into it, and it was like I had instant friends because of the team. There was never a time when I felt like, “Oh, I’m alone here.”

Some of the transition was a little tough, though, because I came from De LaSalle when it was very multicultural. At the time [2010] MA was still very white. It was a different shift to at times be the only black person in the class. There were times the conversations [in class] would make me think, “Hmm, you clearly have no people of color in your life!” But I didn't really take offense to it at the time. I figured they just didn’t know better and that it was a learning experience.

It was also a weird thing to do your senior year. People were like, Why would you do that? I’m happy I did it, though.

Only 10% of the 2011 MA graduating class were African American students during Baker's time.

You seemed to really embrace your brief time at MA. Were there any experiences that nurtured that transition?

I remember this conversation I had with Dr. Harris. It had to be the first week of school, when she pulled me aside and said, "I’m here for you, I’m here to support you, anything you need through this transition, please come and talk to me."

I think that was really big for me, especially watching a person of color lead this massive school. I really appreciated that. It was one of the things that made me feel like I was home.

I also felt really embraced by students and the parents of the other players. That’s a hard thing, right? I came in my senior year and I’m playing over kids who have been here for years. But there was never this feeling of jealousy from the others about that. Instead it was a sense of, “We love that you’re here!”

I was really appreciative of the MA family. I didn’t feel like I stood out at all.

Sarina is up in the air, hands barely on the basketball as another girl tries to block her and one has fallen to the ground.

Baker scored her thousandth point in the same game that Katelyn Adams '11 did, the first time two teammates achieved this milestone during the same game in the MSHSL.

You currently work at Lucy Laney Elementary in North Minneapolis, where 96% of students are children of color. Why do you think it is so important that students encounter educators of color during their time at school?

We know that all kids do better academically when we include teachers and administrators of color. It’s also about representation and giving kids mirrors: If you see yourself in something you will be like, “Oh, I could do that!”

Reading and math scores as well as graduation rates all improve when students of color have teachers of color during their time at school.2

White students show improved problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity when they have teachers of diverse backgrounds.3

How do you as an African American woman teach in ways that may not be as common in the wider educational community?

I would say that I look at the curriculum I am given to teach and I often find myself replacing stories. The perspective of the curriculum we use is really white. They are really good about taking out stories that can carry negative racial connotations but even the fairytales, right? They are all white fairy tales. But almost all of my students are African American.

There’s an African version of The Princess and the Pea, so I replace the story provided in the curriculum with the African one so my kids can see, ok, this doesn’t just have to be a white story. 

I also know how to find stories that will incorporate aspects of black experience that others might not be aware of, like issues around black hair (book suggestion: Hair Love by Cherry and Harrison) or seeing possible futures you as a student of color might not have imagined (book suggestion: Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment by Curry & Curry). I understand that Black language and culture is very oral, and that impacts how I develop curriculum plans as well.

Right now a really big project that we are about to implement is a program on Black history that a colleague and I have been working on. This was something we decided to create for our students but it has kind of grown legs and now will be a school wide program. 

Research shows that teachers of color are more likely to have higher expectations of their students, provide culturally relevant instruction, develop trusting relationships with students of color, and address issues related to racism in their teaching.4

Sarina is standing, holding a book open and reading to four children sitting on the floor.

Why do you feel teaching Black history is so important?

Black history is American history. This program is not going to cure all injustices or racism, but what this project hopefully will do is help give kids specific ways to understand their blackness and their confidence in who they are and what they can become. 

For those who are not African American, my hope it is that it will bring greater understanding of where we as a nation have come from, because that's really the only way to grow. It's stepping back and saying, "Yes, that did happen. Ok, how are we going to learn from it?" It's acknowledging the pain and hurt that happened, but also the joy that has taken place throughout Black society. 

There are so many other aspects of Black history that don't get touched on that go beyond slavery.

In most schools, only 8-9% of total U.S. History class time includes information about Black history.5

How does your work relate to students of color from other backgrounds?

For the Black history program my co-worker and I have been creating the model is very simple. You can actually take this same model and weekly themes and input history, community interviews, stories, and discussions that would draw out the history and culture of Asians or Latinx or others and their contributions in the US.

You are working towards your principal’s license and doctorate of education. What inspired this?

As a teacher, I am able to make an impact in the day to day lives of the eighteen kids in my classroom, which is great. I often would wonder, though, What about a whole building of kids? 

I really want to make this a better place for kids of color. We know our school system isn’t set up for them to succeed. We know that when we have Black teachers and Black principals in positions of power in the school, kids do better.

And, again, it’s the mirrors thing: I want children of color to see themselves in these positions and roles. You don’t have to just play sports. There’s so many other things that you can do.

 In 2018 Sarina received the Minneapolis Educator Leadership Award. 

What mirrors of Black educators were you offered growing up?

When I was growing up the principal at Lucey Laney was Black, Dr. Woods. My dad worked at the school so I spent a lot of my free time hanging out there. Dr. Woods is like a grandma to me now, but back then, it was just watching how she would function: She would see a kid who was down and out and just kind of ask, “Ok, what can I do to help you with your confidence in this moment.” Some of the things she would do show up specifically in my classroom, where I’ll think, I remember watching her do this.

While 34% of Minnesota learners in public schools are students of color, only 5% of full and part-time educators are people of color.6

What is your deep hope for you students?

When I got into teaching, my thing was, I want my kids to leave as well-rounded children, children with tools to be successful not just in school, but in life. For me, academics is important, but that social-emotional is just as important. I would hope that there are times they encounter something new and think, Oh, I remember that Ms. Baker said I can respond this way, or handle it that way. I really do want each and every one of my kids to be successful, and I feel it is my job to expose them to the things they need in order to be successful.

 

1. Andre M. Perry, For Better Student Outcomes, Hire More Black Teachers. Brookings.edu. Brown Center Chalkboard. October 16, 2019. 2. Teachers of Color: In High Demand and Short Supply. Learning Policy Institute Press Release. April 19, 2018. 3. Jason Greenberg Motamedi. How Teachers of Color Can Make a Difference in the Classroom and Beyond. Education Northwest. February 27, 2019. 4. Jill Harrison Berg. Leading Together / Following the Lead of Teachers of Color. Educational Leadership, Volume 76-Number 7. 5. WashingtonContributor, Samantha, et al. “Diversity in Schools Must Include Curriculum.” The Century Foundation, 17 Sept. 2018, tcf.org/content/commentary/diversity-schools-must-include-curriculum/. 6.https://www.startribune.com/as-minnesota-students-become-more-diverse-teachers-remain-mostly-white/498947601/ 

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