A Survival Guide for New Teachers of Color
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.
"I think I mostly struggled with being a representation of the inner-city schools that most other students were dreading to teach at," said Rebeca Juarez, a Milwaukee pre-service teacher. "I wanted to speak out for my community, but also didn't want to be the token minority in my classrooms. I struggled a lot with feelings of resentment."
Such alienation from majority white colleagues often continues when young teachers of color arrive at their first teaching assignment. Older, white teachers are sometimes more comfortable mentoring other white teachers than a young teacher of color. Feeling unsupported as a new teacher is often reported as a major reason young teachers leave the profession (PDF).
According to a UCLA study, teachers of color also disproportionately teach the most difficult student populations, including poor student and English-language learners. It is these high-stress environments that experience the most teacher turnover nationally.
Of course, despite these obstacles, many of us still become teachers. For those of you that do make it, the following are some bits of advice that I learned, or regretted not learning, that will help you survive and thrive during those first years:
1. Communicate with students in non-traditional ways
Your relationships with students are the best part about being a teacher. Talk with students about things that have nothing to do with the classroom every day. Know what they like. Ask about and get to know their families. Attend a birthday party, quinceañera or poetry reading after school.
2. Don't fear discipline
Don't think you can be a classroom teacher without learning how to discipline. Some new teachers command an interesting mix of respect and fear from the minute they step in a classroom. Some, including myself, don't. If you are like me, be aware of it and be aware that you can change it. Ask those teachers that discipline out of love and respect if you can sit in and watch them. The best way to learn how to teach well is sitting and watching an excellent teacher.
3. Educate yourself
Although it's difficult during the first hectic years as a teacher, don't leave all the theories you studied in teacher education courses back at school. Theories are tools that help reflect on the past and prepare for future experiences. Hours of sleep I lost by reading Paolo Freire, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Herbert Kohl and bell hooks were more than made up for by a rejuvenated sense of purpose and energy.
4. Have realistic expectations for yourself
Throughout my first year, I'd feel like a master teacher one day and the next I'd be seriously considering what other career I should pursue after quitting. But a piece of advice that kept me sane through the first year of teaching came from a fellow teacher who said, "Your first year's goal is to survive. Nothing more." While this may seem a bit scary, it definitely helped to remember that simple goal on late Sunday nights when I had a mountain of papers and piles of unfinished lesson plans on my desk.
5. Get to know your allies
Meet other young teachers, people of color and like-minded teachers and staff as soon as possible. In my first year of teaching, I didn't have a support network of other teachers. Preoccupied with crafting the perfect lesson plan and keeping up with grading, I had lost contact with most of my university classmates. I didn't go out of my way to establish strong friendships with other teachers in my new school. As a result, I struggled in silence my first year.
"Introduce yourself to both the new and veteran teachers in your building," advises Morales. "Look for teachers who have an anti-racist, multicultural attitude toward their work and collaborate on creating healthy, productive environments for teaching and learning in your schools."
6. Don't be afraid to ask
Some schools have a natural culture of 'being in it together,' where lesson plans, resources and sympathy are spread around liberally. Most don't. Many new teachers of color in the latter situation fall into the trap of thinking they'll look incapable if they have to ask a question or for advice. In my experience, the reverse is true. The most successful teachers share, borrow and steal colleagues' ideas and inspiration.
Other teachers and administrators would love to advise and support new teachers but are simply overworked. When I first arrived at my teaching assignment, I sat through three meetings before anyone said hello or realized I was new to the building. Be proactive in speaking out and asking veteran teachers or administrators questions about matters both inside and outside the classroom. A more experienced person can usually give you advice that will save you hours of time and frustration.
7. Know your union
Teachers' unions have also made consistent calls for increased support for new teachers and better recruitment of teachers of color. Teachers active in our union were committed, serious educators who fought for students and took time to mentor younger teachers.
Many urban districts have unions that provide opportunities and protections that are not known to most teacher members. Some unions provide scholarships, networking, professional development opportunities and trainings on workplace rights. Many also have committees that address specific issues like multicultural curriculum, bilingual education and involvement in local educational politics.
8. Take time to reflect
Teaching has emotional, physical and psychological aspects that are overwhelming, especially in your first years. Be sure to take time to truly reflect on successes and failures in the classroom and to congratulate yourself on your achievements. Think about your most difficult students and develop strategies on how to get through to them.
I once restructured a multi-week unit in an attempt to get through to one student who was incarcerated for part of the year. We studied the Bill of Rights, visited the courthouse and learned about the prison-industrial complex. The student who wouldn't come to class for months started hanging out in my room after school, talking about the Constitution. When June came, this student who had previously refused to talk in class hugged me goodbye.
9. Take time to not reflect
The first years of teaching can easily take over your life. In my first year, I worked seven days a week, usually until nine or ten every night, and was miserable. Remember to continue to make time for parts of life that have nothing to do with school and that you truly enjoy. Stay connected with family and friends. Doing things to relax and take your mind off teaching will allow you to return to the classroom refreshed.
10. Teach for at least two years
I remember going to school just as the sun was coming up and being jealous of construction workers, bus drivers and cashiers who didn't have to face classrooms full of students and desks full of papers every morning. I seriously considered quitting several times the first year. But by the end of my second year, I started to imagine myself as a truly good teacher. I was engaging more students in serious conversations about the meanings of race, history and culture. I felt like I was really becoming a teacher.
A lot of people say that it takes two or three years to begin to feel comfortable in the classroom and five years to really develop your style. Don't quit early. Know it will be hard, but that you can succeed. Our young people, schools and communities need new teachers of color. Remember the reasons you decided to become a teacher and don't give up too soon.
Antonio Ramírez has worked as a bilingual educator at middle and high schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and as an agricultural migrant educator in rural Michigan. He currently does support work at an immigrant rights organization in Zacatecas, Mexico.