New study highlights the struggles and strengths of Latino teachers

During my 22 years as an educator in the Chicago Public Schools, I’ve been the first male Latino English teacher at every high school where I’ve taught, whether it was an alternative, Selective Enrollment, or neighborhood school. When I started at my current Southwest side high school, a student said she wasn’t accustomed to a Latino English teacher. “Math and Spanish I’m used to. But not English,” she admitted.

As only 8 percent of teachers nationwide, Latino teachers can bring a different perspective to our classrooms. A study released today by the Education Trust titled “Our Stories, Our Struggles, Our Strengths: Perspectives and Reflections from Latino Teachers” highlights the reflections of a sample group of 90 Latino and Latina teachers throughout the country.

“While research shows that students from all races benefit from being taught by an educator of color,” says report author and Ed Trust’s interim director of P-12 research Dr. Ashley Griffin, “our study shows that the discrimination and stereotyping that Latino teachers face leave them feeling discouraged and perceived as unqualified to be professional educators.”

I can’t say that I’ve ever felt discriminated against or stereotyped to the point of being discouraged or feeling unqualified.

I have, however, felt overwhelmed with the responsibility that accompanies being a minority in this profession—a weight that’s decreased over the years as our profession sluggishly diversifies.

“Being an advocate had consequences for Latino teachers,” the study found. “They were often perceived as adversarial or aggressive.”

I can recall numerous times when a white colleague blew up at a meeting in response to some agenda item. Every one brushed it off as expected, or “you know how she is.”

As Latinos, we often have to think about our tone, reconsider our words, or deal with a colleague who was offended by our critique of policy or ideas.

I aim to be thoughtful and considerate of others’ work when I see something differently. I keep in mind what one of my bosses who had worked as lawyer told me, “Always present the facts.” That’s one way I’ve decreased the backlash to my advocacy.

Inside the classroom, being a Latino teacher to low-income minority students brings advantages other teachers cannot count on.

One of the study’s findings was that Latino teachers in their sample “felt they were able to use their cultural similarities to create a classroom environment where students felt welcome, comfortable, and familial.”

This is not to say this happens automatically. As one focus group participant noted, “There’s such an insidious trend, especially in a lot of education research where they talk how like, ‘Oh, it’s just because you’re a minority that you’re good [with students of color].’ But [they] forget and [they] discredit. I’m a really good teacher.”

Early in my career, a colleague and friend who found out I got a higher rating on my evaluation smirked, “Next year, I’ll just sponsor the Spanish Club after school.” I’m not shy about saying this: I was a better teacher than she was. It was my work that helped establish those high-quality learning experiences and strong, professional relationships with students.

Yes, I had an advantage because I looked like the students and had lived experiences like the students she and I taught. Growing up in an affluent suburb as the child of college-educated parents, my colleague had her privileges. Growing up on Chicago’s Southwest side with experiences similar to the students’ whom we taught gave me other privileges.

Fair is fair.

Because of the commitment to my career, the professional relationships with students allow me a frankness that non-Latino teachers cannot always assume. I’m careful about what I say. But I’ve gotten more blunt with students these last few years:

“Stop fulfilling the stereotype and turn in your work on time.”

“You spent how much on those sneakers? You can’t be a Latino who spends every thing he makes.”

“No Pobrecito Syndrome here.”

I even told one student who was disillusioned about possibly losing out on a valuable opportunity because he had to be a parent to a young sibling: “You didn’t bring that child into this world. Raising that kid is not your responsibility. You need to find a way to tell your parent that.”

If the parent showed up at school angry about what I said, I was prepared to stand by my words. The student deserved someone to advocate for his academic success.

To be fair, I give students an opportunity to evaluate me anonymously every quarter. And they tell me what they think about my teaching—bluntly.

But Latino teachers do not just advocate for Latino students. The study “found Latino teachers, both men and women, building relationships with all students regardless of their race/ethnicity, and using those relationships to make connections with both students and teachers across racial lines.”

If we want to diversify our teaching force, we need to focus more on retention—not recruitment. District leaders need to engage more with the types of teachers they’d like to hire if they are to learn what must change in this increasingly demanding profession.

In Chicago, for example, there’s been no concerted effort in our district to build a pipeline of competent Latino educational leaders. While some may claim an organization to do this exists, most educators describe it (I definitely do) as cliquish. That’s one fault of the “familism” in Latino culture: our focus on tight-knit circles creates insiders, outsiders, and elitism based on who you know.

Another fault that might limit a Latino teacher’s success is the aura of assumed greatness, one result of some post-secondary minority-recruitment programs.   We cannot assume admiration.

We can be guilty of feeling entitled, too.

And we cannot impose our belief system on Latino students and become critical of them when they don’t act like we did in school.

I predict most Latino teachers will read The Education Trust’s 12-page study and nod.

But it’s district leaders who need to read this and converse about the implications for our schools.

Then, again, if we had more Latinos with a proven track record of teaching at the district and national level, these conversations would already be happening.

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