It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, but even in an ordinary seven days, Bearden High School Spanish teacher Karen Latus is a target of much gratitude. She was one of nine finalists statewide for Tennessee Teacher of the Year, 2017-2018, and the only one from Knox or its surrounding counties. She was also named Knox County Schools High School Teacher of the Year in 2017.
Last month, she was honored by the not-for-profit Community Shares with its Circle of Change: Gardener of Change Award. She was recognized for her work with immigrant students and their families, in and out of the classroom, and her advocacy against excessive classroom testing.
“My educational activism started with testing,” she says. “It has such a huge negative impact on everyday learning.”
Latus says the current emphasis on testing narrows the curriculum, pushes out other kinds of teaching and penalizes teachers who prefer to work with struggling students.
“No teacher who chooses to do that should be punished,” she says.
She says the immigrant children she teaches are often in a classroom after having immediately fled their homes or even fled for their lives. Many face the very real possibility that their parents or others close to them will be deported. Some of them don’t have food, don’t have places to sleep and don’t have ways to manage the stress in their lives.
“They don’t need to be told that they’re bad at this, too,” Latus says of classroom tests.
Of this most recent statewide testing debacle (in which many students couldn’t submit their work and the vendor admitted to being hacked), she says, “It just proves the point that we are wasting astronomical amounts of money in times when a ‘tight budget’ is the excuse for every lack of resources. To have teachers’ jobs be at risk in the name of ‘accountability’ when there is no accountability for the state or the testing companies is hypocritical, at best.”
A native of Michigan, Latus has taught in Knox County schools since 2009. She was previously the school’s cross-country coach and worked with the color guard. She has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and linguistics and a second bachelor’s in American Sign Language. She also has a master’s in clinical social work from the University of Tennessee, which is particularly useful in meeting both the trauma and the bureaucracy that are part of her students’ lives.
“My kids don’t need me to have a master’s in Spanish,” she says.
About four years ago, the local schools welcomed a number of immigrant teens who had been relocated here and paired with guardians. She told her administration that she wanted to develop a curriculum with them. Since then, the “Bilingual Bulldogs” program she facilitates has flourished.
“I’m thankful there’s such a supportive environment at my school,” she says, from the administration, parents, the community and particularly other teachers. “My colleagues are always stepping up. This is my happy place.”
As the kids have progressed with her and developed a trust with her, they have grown into their responsibilities, including taking responsibility for each other.
She says she received a note from a student that said, “You make every class feel like family.”
That’s what her teachers did for her, she says, and it’s important to her to pass it along.
No matter what else happens in her students’ lives, she says, “They now have a family who welcomes them.”
It’s also important to her that her students see her modeling advocacy. It’s part of her own family tradition — she had a grandfather who left Germany because he was active in the resistance movement against the Nazi government.
It isn’t always the convenient thing to do, as there have been recent reports of teachers being warned against speaking out in public meetings and on social media.
Latus isn’t stopping.
“I was brought up with the idea that you do what’s necessary to make the right decisions,” Latus says. “I don’t want them to be passive when they grow up. I want them to be involved in their communities. There’s no other way anything is going to get better.”