First Person

Green Mountain H.S. counselor among nation's top 10

While Sandy Austin was a student at Lakewood’s Green Mountain High School, she remembers when a particularly good motivational speaker visited her school.

Earl Reum, who died in 2010 after a career spent inspiring young people, left the students with one essential message. He said many people think that young people only care about themselves. He knew that not to be true. He challenged the students to become B.I.O.N.I.C. people and say ‘Believe It Or Not I Care’ with their lives.

Sandy AustinAustin didn’t know it at the time, but those words would become an integral part of her career.

Austin, 51, now a counselor at her alma mater, was recognized last month by the American School Counselor Association as one of nation’s top 10 school counselors out of 100,000. She met with Colorado’s Congressional delegates, attended a hearing, and was a featured guest at a black tie  gala.

“It’s such a shock and an honor,” Austin said. “It’s a real tribute to my mentors. I’ve had incredible people. I’ve worked with some of the best.”

Tami Shrader, community relations/Race to Read coordinator at Bandimere Speedway, nominated Austin for the award.

“She’s really compassionate and she will listen to the kids,” Shrader said. “She just jumps right in and really does have a heart for it.”

From P.E. teacher to counselor

Austin was also named 2008 Colorado High School Counselor of the Year. Before she became a counselor, she was a P.E. teacher  – but not a “typical one,” she said.

“I was always looking for the struggling students,” Austin said. “I focused on those students and I wanted to give them positive reinforcement.”

As much as Austin loved being a teacher, she had a hip injury and she knew she would need a hip replacement. A new career path was in order. She started to look for counseling jobs.

A year after becoming a counselor at Ranum High School in Denver, she applied for a position at Green Mountain, where she became co-sponsor of a peer mediation program. But a spate of four student suicides in eight months made her painfully aware that more needed to be done to support students.

“I was looking at the issue and I wondered, How did they fall through the cracks? I saw that often it was the kids who were new to our school or students who missed school for many days due to illnesses, health conditions, the loss of a loved one, or a tragedy of some kind (who struggled).”

So, in 2004-2005, Austin spun off Reum’s words from years earlier and created the “Believe It Or Not I Care (B.I.O.N.I.C.)” team, the nation’s first. The goal of her new organization was to give students a chance to reach out to classmates in crisis. The team would help and support classmates who were seriously ill, had experienced a death of a friend or in the family, or struggled with isolation or loneliness.

When B.I.O.N.I.C. was first created, there were two teams – the hospitalization team and the loss team.

Forty students signed up.

“When she started B.I.O.N.I.C, I had thought, ‘How brilliant is that?”’ Shrader said. “By starting this program, kids could be compassionate and were able to fill the missing gap at Green Mountain.”

Support for B.I.O.N.I.C. grows

Over the past six years, the B.I.O.N.I.C. team has grown to include  four  teams with 150 student members.

The new student team sends a “survival kit,” which includes a GMHS pencil, a Snickers bar, a welcome card and an invitation to the new student lunch, to a new student and hosts a new student lunch once a month.

The extended illness team targets students who have missed more than five days of school. They call students at home to check in on them, send a packet to help them make up homework, and, if appropriate, visit the student at home.

The hospitalization team will contact the family to see if they can visit. If they can, they will bring a gift to the student to let them know other Green Mountain students are thinking of them.

The school tragedy team reaches out to other schools or communities that experience different tragedies, such as shootings. Recently, the tragedy team sent a 24-foot banner to Arizona signed by Green Mountain students to let the community there know that they were thinking of them. It was a gesture aimed at supporting the community there in the aftermath of the shooting that killed six and seriously injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

B.I.O.N.I.C is also spreading worldwide. She said it’s in about 400 schools, including schools in China, Tanzania, Virgin Islands, Qatar, Barbados and Belize.

Even after students graduate, B.I.O.N.I.C. is a big part of students’ lives and they continue to live the goals, she said. Austin said that young people truly want to make a difference.

“I remember one of my students when she went off to college, a girl on her floor’s family member had passed,” Austin said. “Everyone else left her alone, but my student bought a Snickers bar to give to her. She just said, ‘I am thinking about you in this hard time.’”

Austin challenges her current B.I.O.N.I.C. members to make a difference for someone once a day, encouraging them to do even simple things, such as buy someone a cup of coffee just to make someone’s day better.

Changing role of school counselors

And counselors can use the help. Austin said it’s becoming harder for counselors to reach every child in need. Counselors are tapped to deal with an increasingly complicated set of issues, including family issues that affect students. With budget and program cuts to various mental health resources, counselors are doing more types of counseling that they are not necessarily trained to do.

“There’s more on our plates than ever before,” Austin said.

Austin said parents are vital to the overall well-being of students at school. She urged parents to get to know school counselors and talk to them about how their child is doing.

She said she understands there is more pressure on parents today to make sure their students are successful. She gets a lot of phone calls from parents wondering why she didn’t contact them about their student’s struggle in class. Austin said she just doesn’t have time to call every student’s parents about how they’re doing. Parents should also be in touch with their child’s teachers.

“We can help communicate with educators,” Austin said.

Despite the challenges of the job, Austin has no plans to retire any time soon.

“My goal in life is to make a difference in my students’ lives,” Austin said. “I would feel accomplished if I made a difference in one student’s life.”

Shrader believes that Austin has already made a difference in the lives of the students.

“She’s one of the people who truly makes a difference. She encourages kids to follow their dreams and not be a burden on society but to be a real contributor.”

For more information

Parents can learn more about the B.I.O.N.I.C. Team by watching the this YouTube video and this follow-up one or e-mail to get information on how to start a club at their school.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.

First Person

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, 8 essays from educators who raised their voices this year

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

Teachers are often on the front lines of national conversations, kickstarting discussions that their students or communities need to have.

They also add their own voices to debates that would be less meaningful without them.

This year, as we mark Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re sharing some of the educator perspectives that we’ve published in our First Person section over the last year. Many thanks to the teachers who raised their voices in these essays. Want to help us elevate the voices of even more educators? Make a donation in support of our nonprofit journalism and you’ll have the option to honor an important educator in your life.

If you’d like to contribute your own personal essay to Chalkbeat, please email us at

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

After racial violence erupted in Virginia last year, New York City teacher Vivett Dukes called on teachers to engage students in honest conversations about racism.

“We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away.”

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

Too often teachers are blamed for bad curriculum, writes Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. And that needs to stop.

“It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human, and teaching is both creative and artistic, would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power.”

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

Two of Ilona Nanay’s best students started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. But their educational careers came to an end after graduation because both were undocumented and couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition.

“By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. In this essay she shares what it’s like knowing that you could be the only thing between a mass shooter and a group of students.

“The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills.”

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives.

Alex McNaughton teaches a human geography course in Houston. After Hurricane Harvey, he decided to move up a lesson about how urbanization can exacerbate flooding.

“Teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.”

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers. In this story, he shares how he got one of his favorite pranksters, Chris, to go through a day without interrupting class.

“Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, ‘I see you,’ ‘I care about you,’ ‘I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.’”

Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

Being a black educator can be isolating, writes William Anderson, a Denver teacher. He argues that a more supportive environment for black educators could help cities like Denver improve the lives of black students.

“Without colleagues of the same gender and cultural and ethnic background, having supportive and fulfilling professional relationships is much harder.”

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

For years, Memphis teacher Carl Schneider walked his students home to a nearby apartment complex. Then a photograph of him performing this daily ritual caught the attention of the national media. In this essay, Schneider reminds readers that he shouldn’t be the focus — the challenges his students face should. His call to action:

“Educate yourself about the ways systemic racism creates vastly different Americas.”


Thanks to our partners at Yoobi for supporting our Teacher Appreciation campaign.