Having taught Language Arts for 15 years, Amber Jirsa observes that students often stick to a formulaic essay because they do not realize that they have their own voice. That is where Amber shines both inside and outside of the classroom. She helps students to find their voice, but first she had to find her own.
Sparked by the racial tension that occurred in 2020 after the high-profile killings of several African American men, Amber began to educate herself about the ways in which racist ideas were created, spread, and embedded in American society. It isn’t that she didn’t have her own experiences with racism. Growing up in Las Vegas, she was often the only Black student in the classroom and felt all eyes upon her when they discussed topics like slavery or civil rights. She sensed some of her own students also experienced this feeling of “not belonging.”
Convinced that students work better when they feel they belong, Amber began her journey with Leaders for Just Schools through the Opportunity Coalition Network. “This program provides amazing opportunities for discussions surrounding equity work with like-minded individuals. I found it so refreshing to be able to not only have difficult conversations but to also have a place where I could seek advice and hear the experiences of others.” Taking this work to her own district, Amber realized there were not policies in place around equity issues. Her first task was to seek out teachers that were ready to begin the work around racial equity with her. She created a teacher equity group and also created a student equity group. Due to a lack of training, teachers were often hesitant to address issues of concern around race, including instances of students using racial slurs in classrooms or vandalizing areas of the school with graffiti. As part of the student equity coalition, Amber listened to her students, addressed their concerns and empowered them to the point that her students chose to speak at a board meeting about their concerns.
While Amber’s journey started as an inward reflection, she continues to make an impact in every area of her life. In her classroom, she exposes her students to various perspectives and voices. As an instructional coach, Amber offers insight into how equity can be achieved in the classroom. In her district, she continues to partner with like-minded teachers, board members and community members to fight for equity in the district. While she does sometimes encounter resistance in her mission for equity, her presence is so admired, that a community member encouraged her to keep getting into “good trouble” and gave her an authenticated flag that was hung by John Lewis at the Capitol Building. At a state level, Amber was awarded the 2023 North Suburbs Region Teacher of the Year and was one of 12 finalists for Illinois Teacher of the Year. Even in her home life, Amber is advocating for equity and greatness as she empowers her own children to be bold activists. Her middle child submitted a letter to the previous school superintendent over an injustice he experienced, and her oldest child started an Equity and Justice Committee while in middle school.
Amber’s leadership extends into the IEA where she is a member of the IEA Human and Civil Rights committee which is responsible for EMELT (Ethnic Minorities and Emerging Leaders Training). She currently serves as a facilitator for Leaders for Just Schools and Leaders for Just Schools Facilitators. She also regularly attends trainings and workshops offered through the NEA. Amber acknowledges that while her work with equity is satisfying, it can also be emotionally draining. “It’s so important to lean on your people. Going to these conferences and having my bucket filled by others who are also taking on this work is so important. I would not be where I am without the support of others.” And if your journey is just beginning? Amber reflects that there is nothing wrong with starting small. “Maybe equity work in your district starts with a book study. Maybe it starts with a meeting between a couple teachers and an admin. What matters is continuing to persevere in this journey.”
In all of her equity work for her students, Amber reflects that she has found a deeper understanding and confidence in herself. “I used to be so confused and insecure about who I was, but now I am unapologetically Black.” This confidence in her own skin is what she wants for all of her students. “I want to continue to use my own journey to help our students of marginalized groups feel confident in who they are.” And while she realizes that the journey towards equity is a marathon and not a sprint, she is doing everything she can along the way to make sure students feel welcomed, safe and comfortable being who they are.