August 10, 2009
For most of my life, I hated teachers. They were my mortal enemies, my oppressors. They wielded enormous power and used it to force me to do things. It wasn’t until I became one that I realized teachers are all around us, and that we are all teachers. Education permeates every aspect of our lives. Someone taught us how to speak, use a fork and hold a hand.
That said, teaching a classroom of 35 or more students at a large school in a U.S. city is a specific kind of teaching that demands a specific set of skills–skills I never imagined and, in some cases, never wanted to possess. Being a teacher requires a delicate balance between love and practicality.
Through my first week of student teaching, I was awakened at night by nightmares that the class had erupted into a riot. In my dreams, students began by making fun of my pocho Spanish and ended by setting the school ablaze. Six months later I had learned to craft lesson plans that addressed, albeit awkwardly, political issues.
Now, after two years of teaching bilingual social studies at a Milwaukee high school, I can balance mountains of paperwork, work 12-hour days with ease and at least identify what makes a good teacher. For starters, quality teachers often reflect on what happened in the classroom and how they can do it differently and better. Bad teachers usually don’t.
This short guide is my attempt to reflect on those first few years as a new teacher of color in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’ll briefly discuss obstacles to success and give some suggestions on how to survive and thrive as a new teacher. Although I can’t go through the process of becoming a teacher again, hopefully the tiny elite of the next generation of teachers of color will read this and do it a little better.
“Tiny elite” is no exaggeration. The number of teachers of color nationally is about 10 percent. There are several reasons why almost 90 percent of teachers are white in a country where 40 percent of students are minorities.
For example, if you are a person of color you are more likely to fail the entrance and exit exams for teacher education programs. Why so many students of color fail is not clear. Some claim the tests are biased, while others point to inadequacies in the very K-12 system that poorly educated these students in the first place (PDF).
“The high school-to-college pipeline is broken,” says Jennifer Morales, a former Milwaukee School Board member. “Very few minority-majority school districts have the number and quality of guidance staff and college-bound curricula that would help open doors to college for minority students.”
If you do pass the entrance exam, chances are good that you will be the only minority in your teacher preparation classes. Being the only person of color in classroom discussions can feel draining, especially when you have strong ideas about education and community that are not shared by white classmates.