Sonia Wang is an educator on the South Side of Chicago who began as a literacy and writing teacher at a district elementary school. She is now a new principal at the University of Chicago Charter School Woodlawn Middle School Campus (UCW), serving mostly African-American students from low-income households.
Her approach to teaching, coaching and leading is deeply infused with the values of her teacher training and residency program, the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program. Chicago UTEP takes a context-specific, residency approach to teacher education, which means aspiring teachers get tailored training for working in a Chicago public school.
What gets you going in the morning? Coffee? Tea? How do you take it?
Funny story. I used to never drink coffee. Then I started working at UCW and began drinking so much coffee! I started with a light roast with half and half creamer. Now, I drink it straight-up black. Not sure what that means.
Why did you become an educator? What’s your story?
I was always interested in community service and tutoring. In my third year as a University of Chicago undergraduate, I became part of the Neighborhood Schools Program, a community outreach program. I tutored at Andrew Carnegie Elementary School, a public school on the South Side of Chicago.
My eyes were opened.
I saw how stark the disparity was between my public schooling in the middle class western suburbs compared to the conditions and learning experiences of my students at Carnegie. This experience set me on a path. I started thinking hard about education and how I wanted to participate in it.
You were very reflective about the type of teacher education program you wanted? Tell me about what you were looking for and why?
I wanted to get a graduate degree in education that gave me the tools and preparation to educate students fairly, considering contexts and systems.
There are a few programs that are really intentional about this, and fewer that are focused on the importance of the urban context and cultural competency. Chicago UTEP explicitly addresses issues of race, language, class and culture and how those apply specifically to the Chicago Public Schools context. At Chicago UTEP, I knew that I would be learning not just how to be a great teacher, but also what it means to be a teacher. The greatest selling point for me was the Soul Strand, which is a set of classes that tackles head-on issues like teacher identity, implicit bias and educational equity.
Why did you feel like attention to the context of teaching was important to your development?
Context matters. It’s so important. There is a lot that comes with the urban context. You have to know where your students are coming from and who they are, in order to connect with them and teach them well. The way we are best able to teach is by first recognizing our students holistically and honoring that.
Being in the city of Chicago, Chicago UTEP focuses on keeping teachers in the city schools, but particularly on the South and West sides. To teach in these economically challenged neighborhoods, you have to understand the wealth disparities and the segregation of the neighborhoods of Chicago, at minimum.
Now that I am a principal, I always tell my new teachers: “I don’t care how great your lesson was. If no one is listening to it, it’s the worst lesson ever.” Students need to be present and connected to the teacher in order to get the learning they deserve.
What does cultural competency in teaching mean to you?
It’s being fully honest about who you are and who your students are. I can’t pretend I am not Asian in my classroom. That’s real. You know, like in Lisa Delpit’s writings about not choosing color blindness. That’s key. We do a massive disservice to our students if we aren’t honest about who they are and their experiences. And, unfortunately, I don’t think that is always explicitly taught to teachers in preparation programs.
Finally, what’s your message to aspiring teachers?
Teaching is the hardest work, in my opinion. It’s the work of the human soul. So, for me, if you aren’t in the business to do that, get another profession.