Showing Latino Students That Educators Are Community Helpers
By: Velia Soto
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” asks the kindergarten teacher of her twenty-eight wiggly, majority Black and Brown students. A flash of smiles and wide eyes begin to ripple the classroom as students ponder their long away futures. During our unit on community helpers, some students pull from their background knowledge on people they know that do these jobs in their communities. Still learning the structures of a school setting, many students shout out their answers while others quietly raise their hands – but the responses remain the same: “a doctor,” “a police officer,” “a fire fighter,” “an astronaut,” and the occasional “artist” or “chef” is heard through the rumblings.
As that kindergarten teacher, with those beautiful, young minds in front of me, I aspired to show my students they could be anything they want to be – but secretly hoped they would see themselves in me: an educator. At the time, I was working in the Chicago public school system, as a young Latina, right out of college, in a predominately Latino neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. I was teaching students who were English language learners in a transitional bilingual education classroom.
As I worked to make the lesson culturally relevant and engage my students through their native Spanish language, I anxiously waited for the students who would say they wanted to be a teacher; wanting so badly for them to understand I was once like them and they, too, could do what I did. Years later, when I was the Principal of a predominately Latino Elementary school on the northwest side, I listened in on classroom discussions about community helpers and careers hoping some students would voice their desire to be educators.
Each year when students spoke about their career interests, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own past, only to realize my teachers did not reflect my background. And that is part of the reason I was there; to influence the path for students who are a growing minority in the United States. I wanted my students to understand that education is a valuable career choice and through hard work and determination, it could be an attainable one for them.
When sharing stories with my students, I often spoke about the value of having teachers from similar backgrounds. I wanted my students to know we were in their school buildings, ready and willing to facilitate the skills and knowledge they would need to thrive as adults. I hoped many of my students would see a career in education as the way to create pathways for others like us.
WE DON’T ALWAYS SEE EDUCATION AS A CAREER OPTION
As the number of Latino students continues to grow, the percentage of Latino teachers has not significantly increased. Statistics show that Latinos are not becoming educators. Why aren’t more Latinos seeking education as a worthy career option? The answer to this question is complex. In addition to low college admission and persistence rates among Latinos, there is the added layer of how much prestige the career you choose carries within your culture.
When my siblings and I thought about how my parents had sacrificed everything by leaving behind their Mexican homeland, the pressure seemed insurmountable because they wanted us to surpass their wildest dreams for us. I remember telling my family I would study education in college because I discovered teaching was my passion after volunteering at a small afterschool program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There was encouragement and words of pride, but there were also a lot of questions about financial security. We openly talked about how much money I would make as a teacher and whether or not it would be enough to pay off the debt I incurred to study the profession. Although they wanted me to consider a career as an engineer, lawyer, or doctor; I had no desire to pursue those options.
I was relentless in becoming an educator and that drive came from my immigrant parents. The belief in a quality education was palpable in my upbringing. I saw first-hand how a strong education and a college degree opened doors for my older brother and sisters. They were afforded opportunities that would not have been present otherwise. Education changed my family’s trajectory and as a result, I chose a career in the field because I wanted to help others in the same way.
EXPOSING LATINO STUDENTS TO EDUCATION AS A CAREER OPTION
To this end, we must create more pathways for Latino students. The inequities Latino students experience at every turn and very early in their education, is enough for them to seek other options at the college and career level. When our students struggle to feel valued, wanted, or cared for by those who are intended to ensure their academic success; it is difficult to see how one can be part of the solution when the systemic and institutionalized barriers are seemingly ever present.
But if we don’t make education a viable option, then how can we ever expect equity in our schools? Students need to know, from a very early age, teaching is a rewarding profession. We need to demonstrate we can do better for our Latino students and they can be part of the solution. Those of us honored to be in direct contact with students every day should continue talking about our own paths to becoming teachers, demonstrating the importance of what we do, and measuring the impact by our students’ attitudes towards their schooling experience. It is never too early to talk to students about becoming educators and its inherent societal importance.
For the past 17 years, I dedicated my life to mentoring young students and teachers of color, both in and outside the classroom. I hope they see people who come from little, can achieve just as much as those who come from much more. We must encourage our Latino youth to not only attend college, but to also consider education as a career path. Collectively, whether we serve as advisors, mentors, and or classroom educators; we all have a role to play in exposing Latino students to a career in education and pushing to increase the diversity of our teaching force.
Velia Soto received her undergraduate degree from University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in the area of Early Childhood Education. After teaching in Chicago Public Schools for 7 years, she began her career in administration at a small charter school, where she was a founding teacher, as the Assistant Principal and in 2010 became the Principal. She has masters degrees in Bilingual/Bicultural Education and Educational and Organizational Leadership. After 6 years as Principal, Velia is currently a Director of Emerging Leaders at New Leaders.