I became a teacher because of where I came from.
I grew up in a middle-class family with immigrant parents from Mexico and Ecuador. When I was four years old, we moved to a predominantly white, upper-class neighborhood in Tampa, Florida to ensure that my siblings and I would attend the best public schools in my district. While studying at these schools gave us great educational opportunities, it also exposed us to significant racism. Teachers placed my brother in English as a Second Language classes, even though he was born in the United States and a native English speaker. Teachers hesitated to place me in advanced classes, stating that “Latinos rarely do well in them” and laughed at my goal of going to Brown University. With little support from teachers and with my family’s inexperience with the public education system in this country, I struggled to find the resources I needed to get admitted into top-tier schools. Experiencing these educational inequalities firsthand made me want to solve them. I decided to join Teach for America.
I joined the Bay Area corps after graduating Brown in 2010 and taught ninth-grade English at a charter school outside Oakland. Yet after finishing my two-year commitment, I realized that though my background may have brought me to teaching in the first place, it now had become one of the factors that drove me to quit the profession.
Several recent articles—“Why Do Teachers Quit?,” “I Quit for Teach for America,” “I Almost Quit Teach for America”—raised reasonable concerns about the difficulties of teaching in predominantly black and Latino, low-income communities: the inadequate training, the poor classroom conditions, the inability to maintain work-life balance. Yet as I read these articles, I realized they still had not discussed some of the specific struggles I encountered as a teacher of color. A 2005 University of Pennsylvania study by Richard Ingersoll found that teachers of color left the profession 24 percent more often than white teachers. According to the National Education Association, “The declining numbers of Black and Hispanic students majoring in education is steeper than the overall decline in education majors” and “Minority teachers leave teaching at higher rates than white teachers do.” These statistics made me think about the unique difficulties I and other teachers of color I knew had faced. When discussing teacher turnover, it’s important to address these challenges in hopes of finding ways to make more teachers of all backgrounds stay in the profession.
The articles I just cited expressed the difficulty of teaching students when knowing little about their backgrounds. In the piece “I Almost Quit Teach for America,” the author wrote about how hard it was for her to teach students when she’d rarely had “meaningful exposure to anyone outside my social class.” She spoke of needing “some way to begin to understand where my students were coming from.” In contrast, many teachers of color struggle with knowing too much. Because our backgrounds often parallel those of our students, the issues in our classrooms hit us more personally. This ultimately places an extreme amount of pressure on us to be good teachers immediately, since we know or have experienced ourselves the consequences of an insufficient education. A Latino Teach for America alum in Miami told me: “While teaching, I was acutely conscious of the fact that I wouldn't have obtained the same level of success if my own teachers had not given everything they had to push me to where I needed to be. This intensified the pressure I already felt to do well. ”
I knew what happened when our kids failed at school—many of my relatives and friends had failed, and some never recovered. Relatives and friends who had dropped out of school now lived in poverty, became alcoholics, or spiraled into depression. With these pictures in my mind, the job became almost a matter of life and death. With every lesson I planned, I had this big-picture anxiety: I worried that if I did not teach this lesson impeccably, in a way that compelled my students to stay committed to their education in the long-term, my students would inherit the same fates of so many people I knew. I worried that my failure would ultimately become theirs.
The racial identity I shared with my students made me even more sensitive to their struggles, particularly when few other teachers at my school had this same connection. Though 40 percent of students in the American public education system are black and Latino, only 13 percent of teachers nationwide are. In Teach for America specifically, 90 percent of the students corps members teach are black and Latino, while 39 percent of corps members are teachers of color. While this lack of proportional diversity exists in several professions, when your job focuses on leading a mostly black and Latino student population to succeed academically and socially in a predominantly white society, race matters so much more.
To me, racial and social justice was at the core of my work as a teacher. My students’ academic progress represented the fate of my racial group, a group I knew had historically been left behind. So at every school meeting, I could only think about how our curriculum and policies ultimately connected to the struggles our students--and I--had faced as people of color. When I administered a standardized test, how did stereotypes threaten affect the confidence of my students? When I talked to our seniors about elite colleges, how could I advise them on socially adjusting to predominantly white, upper-class college campuses? When I translated at parent-teacher conferences with parents who spoke little English, how did the power dynamics play out in a meeting between mostly white teachers and parents who could not actually speak for themselves? When I planned curriculum standards, how would these standards ultimately help my students advocate for themselves or support themselves against the inequalities they faced? I measured my success as a teacher by how well I addressed these issues and accomplished these overarching social justice goals. When I or the teachers around me strayed from explicitly mentioning these very real racial and social realities, I felt that a crucial aspect of our students’ education was being left out.
My students also recognized how race affected their education. One student, after getting admitted into Brown, wrote me an email saying, “I'm honestly a bit intimidated by the fact that the majority of students at this college aren't minorities or low-income. I'm worried that I'll feel marginalized and misunderstood because of my background.” Students also thought about race during interactions between school staff and students. One black student told me, after I gave him detention for disobedience, “I would listen to you a whole lot more if you were a black lady, like my mother.” A Latino student who had failed my English class told me he didn’t work hard because “To speak with the people I love, I only need Spanish. English is just for impressing white people.” Though these statements had misguided logic, they made it clear that my students thought of how race affected their daily social and educational interactions, and needed guidance in processing these thoughts rationally.
Yet still, many teachers seemed indifferent to discussing these issues at all. When Teach for America organized diversity sessions, many teachers in the corps would skip the sessions or come back telling me, “I am so sick of being forced to talk about this.” In one diversity session, so many teachers walked out in the middle of the meeting that corps members all received an email from the Teach for America Bay Area Director asking why so many people had left. A white teacher told me, “All those sessions do is make us all feel uncomfortable.” As a person who had spent a large part of my life as a person of color in predominantly white, upper-class spaces feeling uncomfortable, I felt frustrated that other Teach for America teachers did not want to tolerate just a few hours of this discomfort trying to discuss issues that could help the population their position focused on serving.
Before joining Teach for America, I had prioritized learning about communities of color. I took classes on the history of racial and social hierarchies in our country and their present-day effects. I interacted with low-income black and Latino populations, socially or professionally, and had several conversations about the struggles they faced. These experiences helped me in the classroom: I could use this information, as well as my personal experiences as a person of color, to relate to the lives of my students and motivate them in the ways they needed. Seeing how effective this background knowledge worked in my own classroom, and in other teachers who had put in the same amount of effort, made it more frustrating that others weren’t so willing to do the same. I understood that diversity sessions had flaws and did not always produce immediate positive results, but it still seemed that by opposing them entirely, we were all missing a valuable opportunity to become better teachers.
One night, I shared a drink with a fellow Teach for America teacher in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, an area historically with a mostly Latino, lower-income population. Upon learning that I lived in this neighborhood, the teacher told me, “Man, I feel sorry for you. I could never live in such a dirty place. I couldn’t even stand the buses around here. I took a taxi.” It shocked me that a person teaching students from neighborhoods so similar to the Mission could so easily dismiss it. It shocked me even more when this same person was later chosen to give a speech at an educational fundraiser about his success as a teacher. I have no doubt that he was effective in the classroom in several ways. But yet I had to wonder how he could truly help our students when he could so easily show disdain for the places they came from.
For other teachers of color I knew, cultural insensitivity had more significant consequences on their time in the classroom. A classmate of mine from college—Mexican-American and from a low-income family—told me she quit her job at a New York school because of this issue. The school required its students during the summer to intern at pre-approved programs without pay. A student’s mother told administrators that her family could not afford the price of the school’s uniforms unless their daughter worked for pay during the summer as a store cashier, instead of interning. My friend spoke to the administration on behalf of this student, explaining how she worked similar part-time summer jobs to support herself in high school. The administrated denied their request. My classmate said,
The administration explicitly told me, “That kind of work just doesn’t build character in the way our programs do.” I responded, “I may not have had the luxury of having unpaid internships, but I can assure you that the summer jobs I had definitely built character.” I was deeply offended by her close-mindedness, and her unwillingness to listen to a different perspective. I realized that my work, ideas, and point of view were not valued by the ones in charge.
Her story made it clear that a lack of cultural awareness from coworkers can make people of color not feel included in their work environments, and ultimately leave.
During my second year as a teacher, our school hosted a professional development session where the staff, for the first time since I began teaching, shared our backgrounds and family histories. The meeting was by far the moment when I felt most comfortable, included, and connected to my coworkers. Until that meeting, I realized I had made so many blanket assumptions of the staff based on our limited interactions. I wondered, if I had assumed these things so easily, what were our much younger and less educated students assuming? How did they perceive our staff at first glance? How much more trust could we gain by disclosing to them, as we did to each other that day, where we came from, how it has affected our daily relationships, and how it has led to who we are today?
Financial matters can further alienate teachers of color from coworkers. Teachers from well-to-do families have the advantage of accepting a low-paying teaching position and still having money available to them through other means. They have the comfort of knowing their families could help them out in the case of an emergency, or satisfy the occasional craving for luxury when they couldn’t afford it themselves. Teachers from lower-income backgrounds do not have this same sense of security. Often, we are the ones responsible for supporting our families, instead of the other way around. In Teach for America specifically, 39 percent of their teachers of color received Pell grants in college, meaning their families had incomes roughly below $23,000. I knew several teachers of color who had the responsibility of sending money home or otherwise contributing to paying family expenses.
Also, though some teacher training programs, including Teach for America, allow teachers to defer student loans during a short period of time, afterwards, teachers from low-income backgrounds still have to confront this debt. This makes committing long-term to a salary with little likelihood of ever making more money harder to justify. When I saw teachers from wealthier backgrounds stay in the profession, I had to remind myself that they, through their family or connections, could more easily tolerate a teaching salary knowing they would always have access to a lifestyle my family and I could only aspire to.
That life-long aspiration is the last issue that teachers from lower-income backgrounds struggle with. There is something disheartening about working so hard to honor your family’s sacrifices, only to find that your job has not improved your family’s situation. Twenty-seven percent of Teach for America teachers of color are the first in their families to earn a college degree. Many more are the first to go to a top-ranked school. To people from our backgrounds, admittance to college is not seen as only an opportunity for intellectual pursuits. It is seen, as my mother always used to tell me, as “a great equalizer,” a way of escaping the lower social status and finally gaining the respect or financial success of the upper class.
As a result, with our academic accomplishments comes pressure to choose a career that proves you have truly “made it.” This all makes the lack of prestige and the relatively low financial rewards of teaching particularly demoralizing. According to the National Education Association, the national average starting teacher salary in the 2011-2012 school year was $35,672. Without a financial incentive for a career in social service, it can seem more socially acceptable to only pursue this kind of work temporarily: a short stint of self-sacrifice to prove our altruism, before moving on to something more financially ambitious. An article on the National Education Association’s website admitted this when describing reasons for the national shortage of teachers of color: “Salaries are low for teachers compared to salaries for other professionals, which lowers the prestige and social value of a career in teaching for many potential minority teachers. Secretary Arne Duncan addressed this issue when he called for a $60,000 starting salary in August 2011: “Many bright and committed young people are attracted to teaching, but they are reluctant to enter the field for the long-haul. They see it as low-paying and low-prestige,” he said.
My roommate, a Latina graduate of the University of Southern California and a former chemistry teacher for Teach for America, expressed this concern when she left the classroom after her second year to pursue a career as a medical doctor. Her parents had worked their way out of poverty in Mexico through education and obtained scholarships to get Ph.D.’s in chemistry in the United States. She said, “After all that, to become a teacher making $39,000 a year? That feels like failure.” Another friend, a black Teach for America alum from an immigrant Haitian family who also left the profession after two years, expressed the same inner conflict saying, “At least for me another consideration was the life I would be giving my kids. By staying in teaching, I was setting myself up to struggle to provide for them in the same things my family struggled to provide for me.”
My parents both came to the United States with nothing, worked their way through college. They made sacrifices for my siblings and me to grow up in a middle-class neighborhood and attend the best schools possible. My mother began working as a teacher only after my father lost his job and the family needed more income. During that time, I would see her come home exhausted after 12-hour workdays. She took anxiety medication for the first time in her life to deal with the stress. When I saw myself, with an Ivy League degree that she and my father had worked hard to make possible, in the same profession as her, I felt I had done pretty poor job of repaying them. It didn’t seem logical to voluntarily do what she was forced to do, to make her same salary and work her same grueling hours. I wanted to fulfill her wish of a better life, not an equally hard one. I feared that my profession could never truly feel like an improvement. Though I considered teaching an honorable profession where I could give back to my community, after only two years, I felt I needed more to sustain me.
I sent in my resignation later in March. “The physical and emotional commitment that are required to teach well became overwhelming and left little time for me to focus on myself and the other aspects of my life that truly made me happy,” I wrote. Though this was true, what I left out was that the overwhelming “emotional commitment” mostly came from the connection of sharing a background with my students. And though my salary was enough to give me a comfortable lifestyle, and save a decent amount of money, it did not make me feel like I had used my education to pursue a career that was reputable, a career that made my family’s legacy “better.”
When I explained to my students my decision for leaving, many understood. A few even said, “The teachers of color always leave quickly.” Others told me, “We actually always wondered why you were here in the first place. After all that work, why aren’t you chasing your dreams, instead of ours?” Others said, “If I was in your position, I’d probably leave too.” These comments did not comfort me. Instead, they highlighted how even children could recognize that teaching was not a profession to aspire to, and one that people of color, for one reason or another, often abandoned.
I still feel guilty for leaving the classroom. At the end of the year, some students told me, “You are the first Latina I know who went to an Ivy League School.” In a letter, one Latina student wrote, “Seeing one of my own succeed and experience all that you have makes me want to do more and accomplish the impossible”. These comments will always make me feel like I abandoned something, or worse, failed at being someone who my students so desperately needed.
I do not regret my two years teaching at a charter school and being a part of Teach for America. The issues I have presented are not caused by these organizations. Teach for America has demonstrated a strong commitment to diversity: They made it one of their “Core Values.” Wendy Kopp, the founder and chair of the board of Teach for America, has said, "While I started out knowing that diversity would be important, over time I've seen firsthand that achieving greater levels of diversity—particularly with respect to race and economic background—is in fact vital to our long-term success." Teach for America has partnered with several organizations working towards recruiting teachers of color to the profession, hosted forums for alumni of colors to connect and meetings where they have shown a willingness to listen to more voices of teachers of color.
The problem lies in the fact that one well-intentioned organization cannot solve the problems that teachers of color face. There’s a lot that needs to change to prevent more teachers of color from leaving the profession. Schools and teacher-training programs should create a sense of camaraderie among teachers of color so that they don’t feel alone in their work. We need greater emphasis on training cultural awareness so that all teachers and students, regardless of background, feel part of an inclusive community. As a society, we need to make our appreciation for teachers tangible with better salaries, better hours, and more respect. Doing so, college graduates will feel comfortable and secure calling themselves teachers, and will know that their profession is something that can make their families proud.