Why I discourage Latino students from becoming teachers

As I enter my 18th year in education, I’m reminded of how much things change and how much they stay the same. About ten years ago, a casual conversation with a student started with me asking, “What are you doing after high school?”

The student, usually male, responded, “Going to the Army.”

“Why do you want to go to the Army?” I’d say.

Students would tell me to get money for college, to serve my country, to travel. Whatever the reason, I’d follow up by asking, “How else can you do that?”

I realized then and recognize now that many Latino students on the Southwest side of Chicago, and all over our city, make decisions based on a limited number of familiar options. Many of my students over the years also said, “I wanna be a cop.”

What I understand is that students really want a career with authority, with power.

Over the years, I’ve helped a few students with the challenging application for the Golden Apple Scholars Program, which provides strong financial and professional support in exchange for a five-year commitment to teach in a low-income Illinois school. At least three of my students earned the scholarship. Today, though, fewer and fewer students want to be teachers. I’m glad.

On Chicago Public Radio today, Odette Yousef thoughtfully reported on the decreasing number of minority candidates entering teaching preparation programs. “Many,” Yousef reports, “[attribute] this to a change in the Test of Academic Proficiency, or TAP, an admissions test for colleges of education. Anyone who wants to be a teacher in Illinois must pass the TAP.”

The bar for passing this exam has raised, it’s been doubled, according to the news piece, and I support it. For too long, it’s been too easy to become a teacher in Illinois. It’s even easier to get a Type-75 certificate and become an administrator (but that’s another blog post).

While many blame teacher education programs for this decreased recruitment of minority candidates, we have to recognize that this decrease highlights the poor educational experiences many minority students receive in Illinois.

“And that won’t change that, Ray, until we eradicate poverty!” I hear people yelling.

“O.K.” I say. “Let’s go ahead and do that in the grand ol’ capitalistic U.S. of A.”

Instead–how about we improve school buildings, funding, teacher preparation and support, and our professional practices?

In her news piece, Yousef tells us that “the overall pass rate for the TAP is less than half what it was before, and the changes have disproportionately hurt non-Asian minorities. Sixty percent of African-Americans used to pass the TAP; now it’s 17 percent. For Hispanics, the pass rate has dropped from 70 percent, to 22 percent.”

I wonder, though, if there’s also been a drop in the number of minority students who take the test.

In the late 90s, my students talked about majoring in fields that would allow them to work in the nonprofit sector. I remember one high-achieving student, a Southwest side Latina, telling me she wanted an M.P.A. The 90s generation of college-educated Latinos, unlike the 80s, wanted to focus on society, not on themselves. After all, the unemployment rate in 2000 was about 4%. In 2010, it rose to about 10%.

Now, young people have to choose between helping society or supporting themselves.

Standardized tests—undoubtedly– influence minority students’ enrollment in teacher-preparation programs. But we also have to remember that being a teacher is no longer appealing. Teachers fight a negative public image. Let’s face it—sometimes it’s our own fault. But there are also less teacher jobs. Three years ago, when I wanted to return to teach on the Southwest side, I struggled—even with sixteen years of experience, two college degrees, and National Board Certification.  Few job opportunities existed.

So if a high-achieving low-income Latino student from the Southwest side who fought to prove him or herself over and over again to get to college now must pass the TAP to—yet again—prove him or herself, I know why students choose other careers.

Increased college tuition and decreased financial aid also plays a role. When I started college in 1990, my tuition was $8,000 without room and board. When I graduated, it was $15,000. Now, it’s $33,000. I don’t want to encourage any young person to acquire life-long debt for a teaching degree. All we can do with that degree, after all, is teach. Or eventually become an assistant principal or principal. These days? No, thanks.

Unlike other degrees that open doors for people to enter a wide variety of fields, teaching degrees limit us to a classroom, to a school. Ten years ago, when I tried to get a job as an education reporter after finishing a reputable graduate writing program, after building a portfolio of published work in print and radio—in addition to my teaching accomplishments—I was told they’d think about it.

Unlike Arne Duncan whose bachelor’s degree helped him become Secretary of Education, my education degree granted me little expertise. Even today, I still fight the battle to be heard and cited as an expert in my field.

Do we need teachers who look like our students?

Only if they know their content, only if they can teach and engage students, only if they have the social skills to maneuver through class and generational differences, only if they’re focused on students and not on themselves. Being brown and college-degreed and passionate is not enough.

And neither is having a degree from the University of Chicago or Northwestern or Dartmouth. Book smarts, I tell my students, don’t equal people smarts. If we had followed Arne Duncan’s advice twenty years ago and only accepted teaching candidates from the top of the class, I would not be here. To pay my own way through five years of undergrad, I worked 20-40 hours a week, sometimes third shift. I graduated with a 3.1 GPA.

When a brilliant student says to me, “I want to be a teacher,” these days I say more than “Why?”

I tell her about the job shortage. I tell her how our profession is changing and how the work is more challenging. And, honestly, I ask her to consider a law degree, maybe because that’s what I dreamed of having when I was sixteen; I wasn’t confident enough to pursue one.

But I think it’s really because we’re only going to make significant changes in education if we get more qualified, culturally conscious Latino voices into positions of power.  Law degrees will gain us that access.

However, if after our conversation, that student still wants to pursue teaching, I say, “O.K, how can I help you with your applications?”

Last year, a promising male student told me he wanted to be a physical therapist. I asked, “Why do you want to do that?” I asked.

“I want to help people,” he said quietly.

“Then be a nurse!” I yelled. “You’re smart, bilingual. You have great people skills and there’s a high need. You’ll help people, make a good living, and have job security.” That student starts a nursing program in a couple of weeks.

I remember holding my son and, a few years later, my daughter minutes after each was born and whispering into a tiny ear: “Welcome to the world, little one. Here, you’ll use your intellect to help lots of people.” But I don’t want either one to be a teacher.

I tell my thoughtfully analytic and funny 8-year-old son he should be a doctor or an engineer.

Since my bold and sharp-witted little girl was 3, I’ve been asking her, “M’ija, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I taught her to respond: “Mayor of Chicago!”

“And where are you going to college, M’ija?”

“University of Chicago.”

Today, for college day in kindergarten, she wore her Stanford t-shirt. We know she needs a good law degree to run this city.

My own kids will make good career choices, I’m sure. But I do not want them to do what I do. Our community, too, must think of success in other fields beyond teaching if our social status in this country is to change.


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