Cindy Mata Aguilar has been with EDC since 1997, working with teachers and conducting research to improve education for children throughout the United States. She works on several projects focused on inclusive education—a schoolwide commitment to educating all students to high standards, including students with disabilities, English-language learners, students of color. For the project, Good High Schools: Describing and Validating Results for Students with Disabilities, she and her colleagues are studying three urban high schools that demonstrate the best combination of academic performance and outcomes for students with disabilities.Aguilar’s personal passion is keeping cultural issues and diversity central to the work of improving teaching and learning.
What led you to focus your career on inclusive education?
I grew up in a Mexican-American family in Southern Texas. That’s my culture—burritos, tacos, dressing-up for Easter, picking cotton for money. Our house was a block from my Grandparents, and during vacations, we would drive two hours to Mexico to visit our family in Monterrey. Until I was 12, this was the only culture I knew—except for the Southern Texas white culture of the kids I went to school with. My father was in the military, and in 1969, we were shipped to Germany. All of a sudden my eyes were opened to the richness of diversity of all people. I had never met a Jewish person. I had never met an African American person. I had never met another Latino person who wasn’t Mexican American. Living in Germany for 3 years, I learned about wienershnitzal and Kataffasalat (a German potato salad). No more enchiladas and arroz!
I was always a good student, and once we got back to the States, I was very focused and quickly pursued my career as a teacher. I finished my degree in three years and jumped into a high school teaching position in Houston in 1975. I spent a couple of years as a teaching fellow at the University of Houston working on my Masters and then returned to the public school classroom once again.
How did you move from teaching to EDC?
I was head of the English department at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School. [EDC’s] Catherine Cobb Morocco had contacted me a couple of times to participate in focus groups or other studies that she was pursuing, so we got to know one another through her literacy work. When Cathy started the REACH Institute, an English Language/Arts project that focused on access to standards-based curriculum for students with disabilities, she found herself in a Worcester middle school that had a very large Latino population. One day she was driving down highway 290 into Worcester when she suddenly thought, “I know who can do this!” and called me right away. It was perfect! I was at a point where I was ready to move and had already had one foot in the classroom and one foot outside working with groups. When she called, I said, “Sure!”
How has your background influenced your work?
When I first came to New England and learned about the METCO program, I realized that some educators in the suburban schools were using language like “those kids” and “us” and insinuating “they can’t really do it.” They were feeling sorry for them. In my mind, I was thinking, “WHOA, WHOA, WHOA! That is so wrong! Those kids are brown just like me, and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it.” In my family everybody said, “Of course you can do it! Just work hard and you can do it.” This was a new kind of conversation, and it got me angry. Lower expectations because of the color of your skin? No way! Forget about it!
Being at EDC helps me address this because my work allows me to be with teachers, to show them positive ways to teach all kids. We help them think about other approaches to teaching that they haven’t thought about. And if these teachers have stereotypes or images playing in their heads (which we all do), we give them the opportunity to have a safe conversation about that in the context of the books and approaches they are using in the classroom. It’s not a direct confrontation about one’s “isms,” but a conversation about what to do with kids. It’s safer that way.
How has EDC supported you in your work?
I rely on my colleagues. When we’re stuck, whether it’s with one school or with a district, I go to my colleagues here at FSC. We practice “consultancies.” When you have a dilemma or a problem, you put it on the table. We follow a protocol so that everybody can hear it, and then we have a conversation about what to do next. You get the best thinking of all of these smart people around you. It helps you move forward. You can’t do this kind of work alone. These consultancies aren’t necessarily easy! You have to open up and show your weaknesses, but that’s the only way to grow.
What is the biggest challenge in your work?
The biggest challenge is working with whole-school change and getting not only the school but also the whole district to communicate about what makes good teaching and learning. Everyone needs to learn to support one another—from the superintendent, to the district special education director, to the building principals, to the classroom teachers. You need consistency and collaboration across the system.