Much of her childhood was spent in the fields, picking onions, sugar beets, and broom corn, all while maintaining strong grades despite her migrant family’s itinerant life. Today, because of her experience, Dr. Socorro Herrera knows how to make a difference for all those who, like her, have lived a unique cultural experience that often goes overlooked in today’s educational setting.
“My whole passion for being in higher education is to support teachers in understanding that although students have fragmented educations and parents with lower degrees, it doesn’t mean these kids are cognitively-impaired,” said Herrera, professor and executive director for the Center for Intercultural and Multicultural Advocacy at Kansas State University. “There’s a lot of passion in Latino families and a depth of tradition and love, and a value for education, but that often doesn’t translate to the way our institutions define parental involvement and valuing education.”
Herrera moved from Mexico to the U.S. with her mother and father, a Bracero farmworker, back when she was 8 years old, and spent much of her childhood traveling between New Mexico, their home base, and Kansas and Texas. “I didn’t start and finish school in the same place, but I was having valuable experiences in the cotton and sugar fields. It was about the experiences we were having,” she said.
While Herrera kept up with her grades, she realized that what she was learning in the fields – how to kill and skin snakes, for example – and her culture – like that of roasting goats in the backyard – wasn’t typically valued by the educational system, as was going to a museum. “Our culture isn’t valued unless we do a Cinco de Mayo celebration, our language isn’t valued, and the test scores are always telling you that you are basic, “ she said. “It can be demoralizing over the course of time.”
Despite the challenges of living a culture outside of, and unseen by the educational system, Herrera credits those teachers she had as a child and teenager for paving the way for her educational successes and her life’s work. “They valued what I had to say, and they didn’t make me feel as if I had absolutely no foundation. They sent me clear messages of the assets and strengths and capacity I had,” she said. “I had just the right number of teachers to send the message that who I am was valuable. That made a difference as did the way my parents taught me a strong work ethic.”
Upon graduating from high school, Herrera got married and had children—something that was an outgrowth of her parents wishing for her to stay closer to home. “Later I found out that my parents were afraid of me going off to college because they didn’t know how to protect me there,” she said. “But a high school counselor told me back then that I could take my baby to school, and so that was when I started at Eastern New Mexico University and became a teacher.”
Psychological Dimension of Learning
Throughout her career, Herrera sought ways to address the psychological needs of students. “We spend so much time concerned about curriculum and content and how to make the right lesson plans, but when I worked in the schools I saw that teachers were missing the psychological dimension needed for teaching children,” she said.
In an effort to create change in this system, Herrera went from teaching Title 1 Reading and first and third grade education to obtaining a master’s in counseling. Yet, once she worked as a counselor in the schools, she soon found out that her job mainly consisted of filling out schedules and working with kids with problems who needed to be expelled.
Determined to make a difference in a manner she felt was needed, Herrera worked with drug-free schools and community programs so she could be help families working in the fields and those in prisons.
“From working in the prisons, I found out that 13-to 17-year-old kids blamed the schools for their lack of success. But when talking to the successful students, they said what supported them were the amazing teachers they had,” she said. “It solidified for me that the psychological and sociological pieces are needed in education. If a learner isn’t nurtured, then you are not going to get to reach the cognitive dimension of the learner.”
Herrera ultimately obtained a PhD in educational psychology from Texas State University, which led to her work today as a professor of elementary education and director of the Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy at Kansas State University. Her teaching has focused on methodology classes for bilingual education, ESL, and assessment measures. As a center director for 16 years now, Herrera helped recruit, support, and graduate 100 underrepresented students to become bilingual teachers across the country, and has created model programs to help teachers work with underrepresented students throughout the country.
Under Herrera’s direction, the center has received $32 million in federal grants, and much of this money has gone toward recruiting first- generation students to become bilingual, bicultural teachers. In her recruitment efforts, she uniquely approaches families first and then their children.
This has proven to be a very effective manner of drawing Latinos to the program and providing trust in parents that their children will be in good hands.
Cross-Culturally Competent Teachers
In addition to recruiting and creating culturally- literate, and bilingual teachers, programs developed to support teachers in becoming more adept at working with underrepresented populations have been replicated by schools throughout the nation.
For example, the center’s CLASSIC © ESL Program has been used by the University of Georgia, University of Arkansas, Morningside College, and Colorado State University, among other schools. CLASSIC combines key ingredients of the program that make up its name: critically reflective, life-long, advocacy, second-language learners, site-specific, innovative, cross-cultural competence.
“This program has been around for 15 years. I think it’s been so successful because it brings to life the practical tools needed to work with students,” said Herrera. “It asks teachers to be critically reflective and to look at the assumptions they hold of students they teach.”
Another program of the center is called Project BESITOS, which aims to recruit, prepare and mentor secondary students and paraprofessionals for teaching careers in bilingual education in order to increase the quality of instruction for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students in Kansas. It currently provides participants with a solid background in research/theories of language acquisition, as well as an overview of key terms, frameworks, and theories in the field of linguistics.
Herrera’s work has also extended beyond the center, including giving keynotes addresses and traveling to schools across the country, in addition to publishing three books (Mastering ESL and Bilingual Methods: Differentiated Instruction for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (2005), Assessment Accommodations for Classroom Teachers of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (2007), and most recently, Teaching Reading to English Language Learners: Differentiated Literacies (2010).
“I love working in schools with teachers in classrooms. I want to see if teachers are having the same challenges across the country,” she said. “Now I am working with teachers in Ecuador and Guatemala. They struggle with the same kinds of things.”
When asked what seems to be the biggest challenge for teachers, Herrera said that they are working within the limited parameters of the state and federal government, yet when they get in front of students they are the ones needing to differentiate instruction and value the learner and differentiate the teaching. “We want our children to have access and for all to learn. It is important to enter into an instructional conversation with the learner,” she said.
Despite all the inroads Herrera has made with her life’s work, she has faced the challenges of an education system set in ways that wear down the students and teachers. “I haven’t made any difference at all institutionally. The system has so much to change and there are days I feel exhausted,” she admitted. “But I have amazing students doing amazing work and if I ever feel down and wondering why I continue to do this on a daily basis, I am reminded that there are these passionate, committed people here to make a change.”
In the end, Herrera also realizes that she wouldn’t be doing what she’s doing if it weren’t for those who believed in her. She continues to follow her passion to support more bilingual teachers, and teachers-at-large, to be present to the unique needs and gifts that so many students like her bring to mainstream education.
“We have to continue to plant the seeds,” she said. “And more seeds and more seeds.”