Andrea Gambino: What Students Continue to Teach Me
Andrea Gambino decided to pursue her advanced degree in higher education while teaching Honors Civics and Economics at Wake STEM Early College High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.
“It was a very somber tone during that class,” recalls Gambino, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. “One of my students said to me, ‘Miss Gambino, we have to take action, we need to do something. I’m really concerned about how this is going to impact my family.’ We immediately started writing local and federal-level legislators, but this moment re-ignited my enduring goal to work with the next generation of teachers. I wanted to find ways to support and expand connections between k-12 schools, universities, and policy stakeholders to advance social justice through education.”
“This was a really defining moment for me, I made a promise to myself and to the students in class on this day that I would pursue my Ph.D. in education to advance social justice,” says Gambino. “I love teaching more than anything in this world, but I wanted to be able to support teachers as they’re also doing this work, creating change with students in their communities, while also having an impact on policy.”
Gambino was drawn to the school’s Social Sciences and Comparative Education program, and the work of Associate Professor of Education Edith Mukudi Omwami, which is centered on advocacy for young girls and women in Kenya and creating progress for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.
Gambino’s own work in international education began through a collaboration with her former graduate professor Hiller A. Spires, Ph.D., executive director of The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and associate dean of NC State’s College of Education, and Marie Himes, research associate, The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University. Professor Spires invited Gambino to serve as a collaborative partner teacher with her students from Wake STEM Early College High School and students at Suzhou North America High School in Suzhou, China, with the support of the New Literacies Collaborative. This cross-cultural collaboration was grounded in Spires’ flagship Project-based Inquiry Global (Spires, Himes, & Lyjak, 2016) framework which fuses student-created inquiry-to-action projects to generate awareness and progression to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would get to continue my higher education studies and be [at UCLA] amongst incredible faculty and students,” says Gambino. “This program has such an emphasis on social justice locally and globally – it’s absolutely changed my life.”
While still teaching, Gambino worked with North Carolina State University’s New Literacies and Global Learning M.Ed. program and first learned of critical media literacy from Professor Spires, who continues to be her mentor and currently serves as an external member on her dissertation committee. Her dissertation is focused on teachers’ journeys and practices of critical media literacy across the content areas in the United States .
Gambino, who has served as a teaching assistant for the last three years at UCLA, views teaching as her center in tandem with her goals as a scholar and researcher.
“Teaching is so much a part of my identity, I can’t imagine my life without it,” she says. “One of the most difficult things about pursuing my Ph.D. was leaving the secondary classroom. But I feel the deepest gratitude to be able to continue my teaching journey as a teaching assistant at UCLA. I truly feel that relationships between teachers and students that are grounded in love and respect should be the foundation of all teaching and learning.”
“I think we hear a lot about how teachers impact students, but I want students to know how much they impact teachers and the future of education and the world. None of this is possible without them, and so truly, I attribute [to them] the work that I do and hope to do. They’ll always be my why,they’re absolutely what sustains and grounds me in my work. I hope to be able to make them proud and to do everything that I can to advance equitable education for them in my future.”
Gambino recently wrote this essay as a tribute to her fellow students, her undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral students, and her own professors and men/femtors.
What Students Continue to Teach Me
By Andrea Gambino
I will never forget the last day of teaching in the face-to-face environment on March 10, 2020 at the University of California Los Angeles. It was right before what was intended to be the final class with a glorious and vibrant bunch of undergraduate students in Scandinavian Literature 50W. We were in the midst of having writing conferences right before our evening class. I was sitting with a student named Ivy Liu who I was talking through her brilliant final essay about the interconnectedness between race, class, gender, sexuality and other forms of identity-based oppression during the Scandinavian Modern Breakthrough Era in the 1880-1890s.
Ivy turned to me and showed me a glistening cell phone with an email stating that UCLA would be closing in-person operations for the time being. Ivy’s voice wavered, “Andrea, what is going on? Is this real? It’s okay, right? We don’t know what’s going on but we can figure this out together?” I turned to Ivy and said, “I’m not sure what is going on, Ivy, but I know we will figure this out together.”
I quickly pinged my TA supervisor by email and he shared with me and my fellow TAs that we should plan to close-out everything we could with students and to tell them not to worry about their final papers right now. He emphasized that we meet and listen to students and take a moment to celebrate all we had learned together in case this might be our last in-person class for the quarter. I approached the counter of my favorite space of shared dialogue with students for writing conferences (Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Café) and ran my credit card to buy every doughnut and snack that I could temporarily afford. Ivy and I broke out in an all-out sprint, snacks in tow, and raced to our cherished classroom in Rolfe 3121 where we often would pause class to watch the sunset together, open the windows, and feel inspired by campus chatter.
“Final” classes with students continue to remain bittersweet to me throughout the years. As a secondary public school teacher for 10 years, I often asked myself whether “saying goodbye” would ever get easier. I quickly learned that “goodbye” is not something that I adhere to as an educator. I truly believe that to have the honor of teaching and learning alongside students unearths the opportunity to create a community that is lasting and far exceeds the linear construct of time emplaced on an academic year, semester, or quarter. But, the level of emotions I felt when parting physical ways with these students is an instance I will never forget.
We talked and engaged in dialogue, exchanged thoughts and concerns about what was going on and why it could be, but ultimately decided as a class that we would remain connected and quickly set-up a system via Google Meets to remain in communication. We celebrated soon-to-be graduates and gap year plans, laughed about memories from class, and talked about the kinds of writers and activists we were becoming. A wonderful student named Olivia Chung handed me a note in an envelope that I tucked in my teal lesson planning notebook and I protected that note with my life. Letters from students will always remain one of my most favorite things in this world.
As I walked home briskly and crossed my favorite Westwood streets which never cease to fill me with a sense of collective being in this city – I remember being perplexed by questions and with unknowns. I truly had no idea – like so many others – what would ensue in the coming months and now well over a year.
My identity as a teacher is something that courses through my being. It has never been about the content (although I will always love teaching writing, literature, and history) – but has always been about forging relationships rooted in respect, love, and action with students that remain of the most importance to me.
As I entered the Spring 2020 quarter, uncertain of what was to come for remote teaching and learning, I remember standing in my partner Justin Brown’s kitchen with tears in my eyes and I said, “I just want to be able to do everything I can to make sure that students have a supportive community – how can I help them make sense of something I can’t make sense of myself?”
I wept, I planned lessons, and I stayed up for countless nights trying to think about how I could adapt community building exercises for the remote context that were often amongst my favorite components of designing lessons. I relied heavily on every single technological tip, trick, and anything I learned from formerly teaching in blended learning contexts and that I had picked up along the way from phenomenal students and educators. I remained avowed to do anything I could to ensure that my intention to support students and to forge community would be authentic – that I would be transparent with students when I was unsure – and that we would indeed, figure this out together.
During the pandemic, I have had the honor and privilege of holding space with undergraduate, graduate, and post-doc students as a TA for the past four quarters. The ways in which we have had real, authentic, transformative, and healing dialogues together has been one of the most single-handedly transformative experiences of my life. I am blown away constantly by the level of love, care, action, and critical thought that they continue to inhabit and push forward. We have found ways anew to create and sustain community in the remote learning context that I hope will remain a possible learning interface in the future. Mainly, I hope that we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic that face-to-face instruction does not yield automatic community nor does it equate to the “best” or “only” form of instruction.
My hope is that we can create modalities of instruction that can uniquely forge opportunities for learning and learners for which the face-to-face environment does not always meet. But wholeheartedly, my hope of what we can learn and takeaway from teaching and learning during the pandemic is the emphasis and active enactment of care for students’ well-being.
The level of increasing attention in the media, educational literature, think-tanks and more during the pandemic reveal a shift from much of what saturates curriculum and instruction discourse. This presents a unique opportunity to choose and create something vastly different in the landscape of education – an opportunity to prioritize and enact as a way of being towards students’ social, racial, and economic accountability and justice. How different could teaching and learning be when students are supported and cared for in their wholeness? Students are so deserving of better. I believe that together – with students and each other – we can create this kind of education.
I would like to leave you with a few things that students have taught me that have stuck with me and have been wildly sustaining throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first is from a now alumnus, Tony Robinson, who is currently preparing to pursue his medical degree at Boston University. In Scand50W during the Spring of 2020, we were having a conversation together about being a kind of tired that we couldn’t quite explain. Tony said to all of us, “we have to embrace the fluctuations.” This led to a larger conversation about “grind culture” in higher education and the need to listen to our minds, bodies, and spirits during moments that required extreme quick thinking, survival, and adaptability. Thank you, Tony for bearing witness and giving voice to what we now know is shared trauma and perhaps something that has often been framed as Zoom fatigue or languishing. Thank you for helping us listen to ourselves.
The second is from Graham Read, a graduate student in GRADPD496C (Spring 2021), who has been tirelessly advocating for student leave policy change during the pandemic and beyond at the university level through his teacher as researchers project. One day, Graham posed to the class, “what kind of agency do we have as graduate students?” We have often talked together about our shared roles as teaching assistants and our deep affinity with undergraduate students. I continue to sit with Graham’s question. This has led me to believe and know that agency is something that we are united in our efforts within – when agency is not readily viewable or felt, I am certain that we will forge and create systems and policies that can ensure that this question is not one that remains unanswered. Thank you, Graham for raising this question and for contributing to this answer.
Lastly, the phenomenal 41 students and the transformative Dr. Jeff Share from EDUC137: Critical Digital Media Literacies (Winter 2021). It was in this class that I saw myself and all of you – united by our intense passion for critical media literacy, social and environmental justice. You taught me what disrupting traditional hierarchies of education can look like when teaching and learning is truly communal in higher education. Together, we often asked, “how can we share critical media literacy with our families, friends, and communities?” This question has set me on a path to help respond to this call-to-action for the rest of my life. Because of all of you, I have seen first-hand what can occur when we engage in critical thought processes and productions of media that can challenge problematic social contructs. You also showed me how we can experience joy, humanity, and restoration while we strive to make meaning of the world around us. You all gave me a community to learn, grow, to be brave, and to feel supported. You all have changed my life, how I see, and how I show up in the world. Thank you.
While I truly believe in my heart that none of us have fully processed all we have been carrying during the enduring pandemics (social, racial, economic, public health, environmental and more), I do believe we have an opportunity to choose how we process that which has occurred and what is next. I have learned from the incredible, resilient, and powerful students who have held space with me and each other during this time that we can and will embark on what is ahead in the same way that we entered the unknown – we can and will figure this out together.
Grant, A. (2021). There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: It’s called languishing. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html