Windows and mirrors: Monica Washington shares about being a reflection of her students while helping them open doors

Produced & edited by Brian Diggs; cinematography by Anne Bannister & Brian Diggs; assisted by Tessa Benavides-Cooper & Taylor Harrison.

Our Voices from the Field series features stories of educators from all levels, all walks of life, across Texas, and even the nation. These stories are told in a variety of formats all with a singular purpose – to elevate the voices of the educators sharing their expertise, knowledge, and inspiration.

Monica Washington, a 2023 inductee into the 2023 class of the National Teachers Hall of Fame (NTHF) and 2014 Texas State Teacher of the Year, spent time with us during our 2023 Charles Butt Scholars Symposium where she was one of the event’s keynote speakers. Washington dived into a variety of topics sharing her wisdom and perspectives from how teachers are leaders to how representation manifests in students and the classroom. 

Washington is a career educator with more than two decades of experience teaching grades 7-12. She began her teaching career at an inner-city school in Memphis, Tennessee and moved to Texas in 2007 with her husband Ricky, a native Texan, who is a sixth-grade social studies teacher.  Once in Texas she began teaching at Texas High School in Texarkana, she taught English and AP English and served as the department chair for nine years.

“Teacher” was always the answer when Washington was asked the infamous question: what do you want to be when you grow up? She recalled “torturing” other children in her neighborhood with lessons. When they weren’t willing participants, she turned to her stuffed animals to serve the role as her students.

As an advocate for the profession, Washington utilizes her platform to share her experiences as a Black educator as well as to speak about her passion for teaching – a career outsiders tend to label as a career without upward mobility and opportunities for growth.

“I’m so grateful for mentors who told me that you have a knack for showing other people how to do the work, and so maybe you should do a workshop. Maybe you should do a speech. Maybe you can help create this unit,” Washington said. “I looked for ways to help other educators and I found little pockets, little avenues of supporting others where I could still be in the classroom, but then also support other teachers.”

She encourages young educators to find those places where they can lead from their classrooms. 

“Then once you do it so much, people begin to see you as a leader in the field,” she said.

As a Black educator, Washington prioritizes incorporating “windows, mirrors, and sliding doors” into what she teaches. Multicultural education scholar Rudine Sims Bishop coined the phrase to explain how children see themselves in books. A window is a resource that offers you a view into someone else’s experience. A sliding door allows the reader to enter the story and become a part of the world. A mirror is a story that reflects your own culture and helps you build your identity.

Washington encourages all educators to consider how to incorporate similar opportunities for their students.

“Yes, (students) need to look out and learn about other people, but they also need curriculum that is a reflection of who they are and what they’re interested in,” she said. “I didn’t find that. That representation wasn’t there, so I had to put it there.”

Video transcript

Monica Washington speaking:

When I think of the work of taking a young person through the experience of learning new things, connecting them with the community, having them connect with each other. It’s been my life’s work. 

It’s more than teaching English, it’s more than teaching them how to write. But for me, it’s been about helping to produce good citizens, good people who will go out into the world and do good things. 

It’s been my heart’s work and my life’s work, and it’s the best career ever. 

As a Black educator, for me, one of the important things is that I am an example to other students who look like me, who may not have seen anyone in my position for a long time. I’ve had students come to me in 11th grade and they’ve never had a Black teacher before, and so I want them to know that it’s a great profession and I want to be an advocate for them and to help them advocate for themselves, to think about when things don’t feel right and know when to speak up. And so, I’m always looking for those things that can be done better to support them, to serve them. 

Representation in the classroom is almost nonexistent for a person of color. As a literature teacher, what I often found year after year is that we were reading the writing of white men only – older white men, dead white men and nothing current and nothing that I could relate to personally, nothing that my students could relate to. 

And so, there’s this concept that I love called windows and mirrors. Rudine Sims Bishop is a Black librarian who coined that metaphor, and she said that students need a healthy dose of windows and mirrors. So yes, they need to look out and learn about other people, but they also need curriculum that is a reflection of who they are and what they’re interested in. And I didn’t find that. And so, that representation wasn’t there, so I had to put it there.

My students often said, “Ms. Washington, this is English, not history.” But I feel as though writing is always about a reflection of what’s happening at the time. And so, if we’re reading about something that happened in the 60s, then I want to go and see who else is writing at that time.

And so, who are the women who were writing at that time? So, if there are women voices that are not present, then I’m going to pull in that writing; poetry; I’ll pull in videos; I’ve even pulled in commercials. So, when we have our women’s study unit we pulled in all of these other pieces of women’s literature; music. It doesn’t matter. So we would go music, and poetry, and pictures, art. I love to pull in the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I just go on a search, have the kids go on a search and we fill in the gaps.

There isn’t often enough career advancement in the field. Sometimes people don’t want to be principals. I never wanted to be a principal. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a principal, but that for me wasn’t what I wanted to do.

And so, I had to find a way to support my kids and also support teachers in a way that they could support other kids. And so, I look for those opportunities that would allow me to do that. 

I’m so grateful for mentors who told me that, you know, you have a knack for showing other people how to do the work. And so, maybe you should do a workshop. Maybe you should do a speech. Maybe you can help create this unit. And so I looked for ways to help other educators, and I found little pockets, little avenues of supporting others where I could still be in the classroom. But then also support other teachers.

For me, it was my third year of teaching. My principal noticed some things that I was doing that he thought was unique. I don’t even remember what they all were, but he said, “You know, we have this in-service coming up and this time I want to do something different. We’re inviting these people in, but I also want some of that to come from you all. I want you to do some workshops for each other.” And he’s like, “Could you do one?”

And almost everybody was older than I was in my school, like they were veterans. And I felt so intimidated by being able to do that. First of all, I was honored, but to step in front of people who had 30 years experience and I had 3, and I did it and I called the session What A Student Needs In A Teacher.

Because what I felt was that we talked a lot about what we needed from our kids, but we weren’t talking about what they needed from us. So, I made a whole session about that and it went over well to my surprise, and I was like, I’ve been bitten by the bug.

At the bottom of all of my stationery I have “Teach until the taught become teachers.” And that doesn’t mean like necessarily as a profession, but that they have learned so deeply that they can then teach someone else. When you have a student who has been reluctant to speak or reluctant to write or reluctant to work in groups, finally do that and feel confident enough to do that because the classroom feels safe for them. I love it when they become teachers, but they don’t have to all become teachers. But when they come into the field and love it and then say that something in their experience with me prompted that, that is such an amazing feeling.