First Person

Diversity is more complicated for me than my teachers and peers realize

I am the only Mexican girl in my class.

I have been the only Mexican girl at school since 6th grade. I stand out in my largely-Dominican neighborhood and school, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. As my mostly white teachers try to bridge the cultural gap between students and teachers by using examples from Dominican culture in class, they have also widened a gap between me and my classmates.

Washington Heights, where I live, is predominantly a Dominican community, though in my daily life I also see some other kinds of Hispanics as well as Orthodox Jews. My school, WHEELS, is 97 percent Hispanic, and within that, about 95 percent are Dominican. 

Some people don’t realize that the category “Hispanic” includes people from various countries and backgrounds, and they assume that since my Dominican classmates and I are all Hispanic we must automatically be alike.

Growing up surrounded by Dominicans gave me insight into a different culture, but at school I feel like an outsider in a building full of people who understand each other because they shared a common background. I remember sometimes bringing in Mexican food for lunch and having to hear remarks about how weird it looked. Even the way I speak Spanish is different from the way they spoke, and my classmates sometimes make comments during Spanish class about how “Mexican” I sound.

The real world connections my teachers make in class always seem to connect to the Dominican Republic. As an expeditionary learning school, WHEELS has a very hands-on curriculum, driven by real world connections. In my opinion, the point of the hands-on curriculum is to try to involve all students in order to make sure we all understand what is going on. But instead of making me feel included, the examples my teachers give often make me feel left out and uncertain of my position in the classroom. It’s as if the teachers have classified their students as a certain group of people, and I am excluded from that category.

I remember feeling hopeful each year when Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday, rolled around. I thought one of my teachers might mention the holiday so others could learn something about my beautiful culture. They never did, and I felt so disappointed walking home after school. I just wanted others to learn a little more about me and my culture instead of me always learning about theirs.

For example, when we were learning about black heritage in U.S history class, my teacher, who is of Dominican descent, talked about his grandmother’s complicated relationship with the label “African-American.” Most of the students understood what he meant, but I did not and am still confused and don’t feel like I learned from the example. What frustrated me wasn’t the example itself, but the assumption that everyone in the class would understand it because of our heritage. 

I’m a very active student in the classroom, so I think the teachers recognize that I’m there and that the examples didn’t include me. But since most of my classmates are Dominican, I think my teachers chose to use examples that would help the majority of their students better understand the material.

I love my school, but I wish it were more diverse.

Some people don’t consider diversity in school an important issue. For example, when I told one of my Dominican classmates that I was writing about diversity, she replied “‘Why? That’s not really a big deal to me.’” She might not see it, but I think more diversity in schools–both in terms of the examples teachers give, and the makeup of the student body — would help all students, not only students like me who feel like the odd ones out.

When I use the word diversity, I mean not only the broad categories of black, white, Hispanic, and Asian, but also the many groups within each of those categories.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2043 no single ethnic group will make up a majority in the United States. America is becoming a more diverse society, and all schools–public, private, and charter, should be safe and encouraging environments where students can learn to work with people from diverse backgrounds. That would make us feel more connected to our classmates and prepare us for real-life situations.

I think teachers should consider all students when choosing what examples to share with the class. Real-world examples can help us understand the material, but teachers should make sure all students’ cultures are represented. One way teachers could do this is by encouraging students to make and share their own connections between their cultures, the world around them, and what they’re learning in school. That’s the kind of change that would have transformed my experience as a student and helped all of my classmates learn more as well.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.