Living Skills teacher of two decades to retire

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Amy Lin, Editor-in-Chief

Burton poses with students of the Black Scholars United club at the 2019 graduation.“ She’s always looking out for her students and making sure that we have everything we need, while also teaching us to become more aware of our surroundings and how to navigate the world,” Makayla Miller, co-president of the Black Scholars United Club, said.

Veteran Living Skills teacher and unwavering voice for underrepresented students and staff Letitia Burton is retiring at the end of this semester.

“Teaching, for me, is a sacred calling… Teaching has given me the opportunity to touch the lives of a lot of people, a lot of students, and to also know that those lives that I’ve touched are going to touch other lives,” Burton said. “It’s a way of creating a legacy, but I can only hope and pray that it’s a good effect and it’s a lasting effect and it’s meaningful.”

Her impact to the Living Skills curriculum over the last two decades is one of the many examples of the powerful legacy she has left behind at Paly.

“We used to call that class ‘Sex, Drugs, and CPR’,” Trinity Klein, former Palo Alto High School English teacher and said.

While still thoroughly exploring those topics, Burton placed new emphasis on social justice and self-identity.

“She was doing work around gender identity, sexual identity, racial identity,” Klein said. “That’s really complex adult stuff, and I think she handled it with fidelity.”

“Living skills is not a class just anyone can teach,” counselor Susan Schultz said. “Let’s face it, not everybody’s comfortable talking about those things, especially to a room of 30 teenagers.”

In addition to her contribution to Living Skills, Burton has become a well-respected advocate for minority students and staff.

Burton discusses the minority achievement gap with a student reporter in her classroom. “Ms. Burton has always been an advocate for the underrepresented kids at Paly,” Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson said. “She has always given thoughtful input at meetings in fighting for the kids who need extra support.” Photo: Jay Renaker

“She was really good at getting people to act and think with equity in mind,” Klein said. “‘How might this one thing impact a set of students whose voices aren’t always heard on campus?’ I think she was really pivotal, she often had a seat on leadership committees.”

“I always admired Letitia for her “stand-up attitude” and support for the students of color and underrepresented students who couldn’t advocate for themselves,” campus supervisor Norma Hymes said. “Ms. Burton always tried to teach her students of color about their Black History and to always give 100% in the classroom no matter what the situation.”

When Burton first became a Paly staff member, there were only two black teachers on the staff. In 2005, a student wrote a vulgar comment in an anonymous Q&A about interracial sex. Over a decade later, Burton says she still sometimes receives disrespect due to the color of her skin. 

“Students may not be used to having a person of color being an authority,” Burton said. “It’s kind of like ‘Have a nice day!’ racism, like I really don‘t have to pay attention to you.”

Around five years ago, Burton dove into jazz singing by attending an adult summer camp organized by Living Jazz. “My singing has improved, my stage presence has improved, I have more confidence,” Burton said. “Will I be the next Ella Fitzgerald? No. But I can be the best of me.”

Despite these challenges, Burton has become a revered presence at Paly.

“She’s just been such a strong powerful force at Paly for so long,” Schultz said. “She’s always willing to help. She’s always willing to be involved. She’s always looking out for the students.”

Burton was recently cast in a community theater production, and she says she will continue to pursue musical theater after she retires. She also hopes to take on more singing gigs, and even travel to France.

“She is just a great spiritual human being,” Assistant Principal Berkson said. “I really cherish the conversations that we have had and will really miss her.”