Klaudia Burton, who had previously taught science at East Lansing High School and in Lansing Public Schools, will serve as the East Lansing Public Schools’ first Director of Equity and Social Justice, a position that Superintendent Dori Leyko and the Board of Education called for as part of their work to create a more equitable district.
Burton told ELi in an interview that she was immediately motivated to apply for the position when she saw the call for applications.
“When I first saw the call, I felt like this was for me,” she said in the interview. “Ever since I’ve been a teacher, I’ve taken the role of making education more equitable.”
“It starts at the educator level, dismantling things in the classroom that are meant to keep marginalized students in that position,” she said. As a teacher, Burton pursued professional development on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and was part of the development of equity and social justice teams in the district.
Building an inclusive environment for all students is important to Burton, who is excited for her new work as Director of Equity and Social Justice, which includes making other marginalized students, such as students in the LGBTQ+ community and of lower socio-economic status, feel welcome.
Burton taught at Everett High School in Lansing from 2014 to 2019 before making the move to ELHS for the 2019-2020 school year. A parent who worked with Burton at Everett let her know about an opening for a science teacher at ELHS and encouraged her to apply.
Burton says she has always been a science enthusiast who likes to understand why things work the way they do. In high school, she filled her electives with science courses and considered becoming a medical doctor.
“I was never exposed to what other opportunities looked like,” Burton said, but after tutoring kids, she realized she loved it. “It’s the toughest but most rewarding job.”
So what makes teaching tough yet rewarding to Burton?
She appreciates that, in addition to showing up to teach classes, teachers have opportunities to build relationships with students, design courses to meet curriculum requirements, and play counselor to support students. Being a teacher became all the more challenging during the pandemic when classes moved online and the national view of teachers seemed to shift from “hero to zero,” said Burton. She found it particularly hard to see teachers be viewed as lazy when she didn’t know a single teacher who didn’t sacrifice family time and wellbeing to teach during the pandemic.
Burton values both the relationships she builds with students and helping them to see science in a new light.
“The relationships you build with kids are not always science-based,” she said. When encountering students who say that they “can’t do science” or aren’t “science-minded,” Burton asks them what their decision-making process is like. Often, the process is similar to a scientific attitude, since students identify both problems and solutions.
During the pandemic, Burton reports, teaching science felt like a great responsibility. While her lesson plans already covered things like evolution of microbes and herd immunity, her lessons had more immediate implications. Burton also had to balance providing factual information, admitting when she didn’t know something, and guiding students in finding accurate information on their own.
Representation was also a motivating factor for Burton pursuing a career in education, she explained, saying that she could count on one hand how many of her teachers in high school and even college had been Black. As ELi has reported, the lack of diversity among teaching staff is an ongoing issue for Black students at ELPS. She thinks back to her experience as a Black girl in high school and what she now in hindsight recognizes as microaggressions against her.
But her Black instructors had some of the greatest impact on her life. She pointed out that Black women are still underrepresented in the sciences and shared with ELi a story about why she sees having Black teachers as so important. One Black female student reached out to her to ask when Burton would be teaching earth science because the student felt having a Black female teacher was important to her education.
Burton also takes her work outside the classroom by coaching cheerleading and field events for track and field.
When asked if she has a motto or mantra that informs her approach, Burton said “culture over content,” meaning that it’s harder for students to learn if they don’t feel included and welcome. Similarly, if students feel understood and appreciated by their teachers, they may often work harder and learn more than they might have otherwise.
Burton told ELi that making education more equitable will take more than one person or one district but believes that “the East Lansing family is ready” and that the district has taken significant steps to build a more equitable environment.
She specifically pointed to professional development trainings run by the Justice Leaders Collaborative and another by School Board President Terah Chambers that made teachers and administrators reflect on their work and provided a common language for discussing equity issues.
In her new position, Burton plans to take what has been done so far to project plans for the future while keeping everyone aligned on the same page. Burton has so far only taught at the secondary level, so she welcomes the chance to work with younger students and getting to know the entire district. She also sees attracting and retaining teachers of color as a priority.
Burton begins her work as the district is transitioning to completely in-person learning with a new crop of teachers and administrators. Following the departure of ELHS Associate Principal Matt Morales, the Board approved the hire of Quiana Davis-Lewis as Associate Principal. The Board also gave its consent to hiring other teachers across the district and is still hiring for more positions.
School starts back up on Aug. 24, and the next meeting of the School Board will be on Aug. 23.