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.