Ruben, dressed in a blue and gray ProClub outfit, slumped down in his seat. When I asked him to get to work on his essay, he said instead: “Ms. Zamora, why does my other teacher hate me? Me and my friends were walking near the gates at the back and, all of a sudden, she comes up to us yelling at us saying that we were smoking and to empty our pockets, saying for us to go to the office. … Is it because we were all Mexican? We were just walking. This is why I hate school.”
The relationship that Ruben and I have painstakingly built has made it possible for him to confide in me without fear. As a teacher of color, I’ve worked hard to create a community in my classroom where all my students feel safe in expressing what it feels like to be criminalized or isolated when behaving a certain way — or just walking with their friends. The fact is that Ruben’s experience is not unique and is not dissimilar from my own. I did not have a teacher of color with whom I could connect until I was in college; it was that teacher who inspired me to become an educator.
In California, about 23% of our student population is white, while 63% of the teacher population is white. Our Latino students make up 54% of our students, while just 20% of teachers share that demographic. As a Filipina-American, special education middle school teacher, I live the reality of my students’ perception of how they’re viewed as students of color every day. I also struggle every day with my own isolation as a teacher of color, especially as I continue to champion students like Ruben. As I question why my students of color are underachieving or advocate to provide differentiated instructional strategies to support them, my efforts are frequently dismissed or belittled. I am left questioning the disrespect toward me and my experience as a result of being a teacher of color.
At times, I feel exactly like Ruben; I hate school too.
I’m not alone in this. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to share my students’ and colleagues’ experiences before a packed room of educators, researchers, systems leaders and policymakers gathered to create a vision for a diverse and sustainable teacher workforce in California. I shared my understanding and personal experiences of the root causes of why teachers of color enter, stay and leave the profession and how it took my one and only experience having a teacher of color to inspire me to become an educator. I also talked about how just one experience of being isolated is enough for me to contemplate leaving the classroom. We need to ensure teachers of color are coming into and staying in the classroom.
I felt powerful presenting my own and my students’ experiences in a room of leaders at the summit. Educators of color around California are continually creating many local roads that lead their students to teaching, but who is giving us the materials to do so? We need a blueprint from the state level. Having a culturally responsive and anti-racist curriculum that students see themselves in allows for the pipeline to teaching to be visible and accessible. Ruben and I deserve to see ourselves in the curriculum and not shy away in fear of others’ opinions.
Recruiting teachers of color begins with consistent and transparent data on teacher demographics. If that data was readily available for each California district and campus, teachers could make decisions based on where they can teach effectively, but mostly, bravely. And, what better place to recruit future teachers of color than from within our California schools that are, in fact, serving students of color? Empowering students of color requires us to look at our representation in schools now, so that it won’t be until college, or never, when they experience having a teacher of color that looks like them.
Another strategy is the creation of affinity groups within districts that function as safe spaces for teachers of color. I know that I would benefit from a place where I could be with fellow teachers of color when I am feeling isolated. District support of affinity groups would speak volumes to any teacher of color about systemic support and help them succeed at their place of work to increase retention. In Oakland Unified School District, such affinity groups already exist to support staff and to create a space for cultural understanding and healing. Being a new teacher, I’m sure the support from an affinity group of teachers of color would create a community where I would long to serve for the majority of my teaching career. It can create a culture where teachers of color feel welcomed, supported and seen — how Ruben should feel every day as a student, as well.
I hope that our summit and other discussions lead to a collaborative understanding of the state infrastructure necessary to develop strong pipelines into the profession. I hope our state and district leaders can better understand and focus more on how to best prepare young teachers of color like me for the classroom and how to ensure that they remain there.
A diversified teaching force in California is one made up of qualified educators who reflect the students and the communities we serve. We need legislators to act so that teachers of color stay in California classrooms where their presence is crucial for every student’s achievement. We need legislators to act so that Ruben does not question if a teacher hates him because he’s Mexican.
We need to come together with a shared vision for the profession — and then work together to execute it.
Allison Zamora is a special education middle school teacher in San Diego County and a 2022-23 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.
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Dr. Luke Lara 1 month ago1 month ago
Thank you for being brave Allison Zamora! Your voice is being heard. As a Latino educator in the California Community College, my experiences resonate with yours. I too have spoken and written about equity issues in the CCCs for both students and educators. Your suggestions are right on and I encourage all educational institutions to reflect on how their policies and practices impact the well-being of their students and employees. An institution that does not … Read More
Thank you for being brave Allison Zamora! Your voice is being heard. As a Latino educator in the California Community College, my experiences resonate with yours. I too have spoken and written about equity issues in the CCCs for both students and educators. Your suggestions are right on and I encourage all educational institutions to reflect on how their policies and practices impact the well-being of their students and employees. An institution that does not value “people first” is one that will grind people up to meet their objectives. Those people are often students and employees of color. When we finally acknowledge that race-neutral policies/practices have real racial outcomes/impact (as evidenced by data – qualitative and quantitative), we can begin to address the root cause of disproportionate impact and equity.
Dr. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago
Candidates of color who have been abused by the K-12 education system are highly unlikely to enter the system as teachers! Fool me once!
The white and female dominated K-12 education system is totally satisfied with the racist status quo.
It is time to establish Freedom Schools as Sharif El Mekki has led in Philadelphia.
We must follow a different path.
Enough is enough!
Adina Sullivan-Marlow 1 month ago1 month ago
Thank you, Alison. I welcome you to join the San Diego County Office (SDCOE) Educator Pathways Community of Practice which is an affinity group supporting BIPOC educators. Other CA BIPOC educators who would like to join us for the 2023/2024 sessions can sign up on the interest list at EducatorPathways.sdcoe.net.
Gilman Whiting 1 month ago1 month ago
I applaud the author’s support for students who have been kept at the margins and often feel unwelcome. It’s difficult for a teenager to believe they are not wanted. No matter their race, gender identity, SES, or immigration status. A White girl in a math class can be made to feel as though she is in the wrong place. However, the data tells us that it is more common for a Black, Latino(x), Mexican, child … Read More
I applaud the author’s support for students who have been kept at the margins and often feel unwelcome. It’s difficult for a teenager to believe they are not wanted. No matter their race, gender identity, SES, or immigration status. A White girl in a math class can be made to feel as though she is in the wrong place. However, the data tells us that it is more common for a Black, Latino(x), Mexican, child to be targeted and harassed. I am positive nearly any student regardless of the race, ethnicity or gender could find support in this teacher. This does not negate the research that demonstrates having a teacher who a student identifies with is a powerful combination and has a higher chance of academic success, but the teachers, not just the 54% White ones, must be capable of meeting young people where they are. All teachers, especially White faculty must be able to create a bond of trust and a relationship of mutual trust with one goal – to help make this child in my charge better than when I met them and more prepared for a better life in higher education or in the world of work.
School is the place for the better making of productive adults. Anything less is a failure. A relationship can be built, but take time and understanding. It takes recognizing our own biases. It takes dismissing the mass media manufactured notions of all that ain’t White ain’t right. It was only after teachers established a relationship with me that I could hear them, particularly if they were policing, harassing, and dismissive of me.
As a former world-class athlete it always amazed me how my coaches could make me run til I hurled, or tackled bigger guys til it hurt, or swam until the chlorine blinded me and I would come back for more. They all created a relationship with me. Yes, I know it was sports and I wanted to play. But somehow, somewhere someone made sports interesting. Teachers are coaches, they are parents, they are mentors. When a non-White teacher sees a child they often treat all them the same. The same encouragement, and equal discipline. The push Black and Brown students because they know what society is going to hit them with. Too often White teachers (not all) can not see the power they possess. The long term impact they can have. Professional development for existing teachers is required, but a great push to be equitable in finding, hiring, nurturing, and retaining Black, Brown, and other non-white faculty is imperative. Scholaridentity.com | blkstudent.org
Kaylen Runner 1 month ago1 month ago
Wow, this is a great story. I hope we hear more from you Allison!