My [redacted] Journey

A teacher's search for inner peace.

Why Teachers of Color Don’t Quit

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December 27, 2013

Before you read today’s post, you might want to check out the following story:  http://m.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/why-teachers-of-color-quit/282007/

If you would rather not leave my blog to read another, here is a quick recap.  On the web page The Atlantic, is a story titled “Why Teachers of Color Quit” by Amanda Machado.  Machado graduated from the prestigious Brown University in 2010 and subsequently, joined Teach for America, the Bay Area corps.

According to its website, Teach for America “is a national teacher corps of college graduates and professionals who commit to teach for two years and raise student achievement in public schools.”  Professionals and recent college graduates are recruited to teach for at least two years in low-income public schools.  New recruits are provided with a seven week, intensive training program that I have to assume, teaches them to teach.  The training takes place during the summer before the recruits are placed into their teaching positions.

This is where we pick up Amanda Machado’s story.  Upon completing her two-year commitment at a charter school in Oakland, Machado believes that she can explain why teachers of color quit teaching.  If, after spending two years teaching at a lower-income, public charter school, Amanda Machado is qualified to impart any reliable information as to why teachers of color do not stay in the teaching profession, I must beg to differ.  So, here goes.

I became a teacher because I knew I would be good at it, and I am.

I grew up in a lower to middle income family with non-immigrant parents, although generations back, my ancestors did come from Mexico.  When I was four years-old, my family moved to a predominantly lower to middle class neighborhood to ensure that my siblings and I could attend the private Catholic school in the community.  While studying at this school afforded us a slight edge educationally, it also introduced me to racism.  Most of my teachers were quick to take me, the smart girl, under their wing and mentor me.  However, it wasn’t long before remarks like, “Mexican students do not belong in the higher, advanced classes,” began slipping out.

“Wait, I’m in here and I’m Mexican,” I would counter.

“Yes, well, you don’t look Mexican and you certainly don’t act Mexican.”  Yeah, still trying to figure that one out.

Subsequently, I wasn’t allowed back into the advanced English class until my senior year in high school.  With no actual support from my teachers, and very little in the way of resources from my parents, I navigated the admittance procedures to a state university.  What author Machado experienced as “educational inequalities firsthand” that made her “want to solve them” is one of the things Machado and I have in common.  Machado “decided to join Teach for America.”  Whereas I decided to enroll in an accredited secondary education program at a reputable state university, put in the required two years of study, and complete a semester of student teaching under the guidance of a veteran teacher.

Machado is quitting teaching, I am not.

After graduating from Brown in 2010, Machado taught ninth-grade English at a charter school outside Oakland.  After graduating from Arizona State University in 2000, I taught ninth-grade English at a public high school in inner-city Phoenix.  Now, after completing her two-year commitment to Teach for America, Machado is quitting teaching.  Here is where our stories diverge.  After completing my thirteen-year commitment to public school students in the state of Arizona, I am not quitting teaching.  See the difference?  Well, there’s more.

Machado, a “teacher of color”, writes that “many teachers of color struggle with knowing too much” of their students’ backgrounds.  She concludes this “because our backgrounds often parallel those of our students” and “the issues in our classrooms hit us more personally.”  While this may be true, what I, a Latina teacher, struggle with is how Machado can write with any degree of expertise on how her being raised in a “predominantly white, upper-class neighborhood in Tampa, Florida” parallels with her students’ backgrounds.  Remember, Teach for America places their recruits in low-income public schools.  And, I can surmise that Machado’s school outside of Oakland is not predominantly white.  Nope, no parallel that I can see so far.

It is conceivable that Machado is not including herself in that example.  However, based on her premise that we teachers of color have difficulty teaching because we know too much of our students’ backgrounds, she concludes that “this ultimately places an extreme amount of pressure on us to be good teachers immediately, since we know or have experienced ourselves the consequences of an insufficient education.”  I do not know if Machado felt that she was a good teacher immediately upon beginning her teaching career (such as it was).  However, I can tell you that I was a good teacher upon beginning my teaching career.  I was a good teacher because I had completed a two-year teaching program in which I studied different teaching philosophies along with child development and growth and child psychology.  I also student taught under the tutelage of a veteran teacher who was there to help turn me into a good teacher.  Nothing about my being a good teacher was immediate.  Then again, I did not accept the responsibility of educating 125 students proficiently, until I was a good teacher.  Machado accepted that responsibility with a mere seven weeks of Teach for America training.

Although Machado cites that knowing too much of our student backgrounds is one of the reasons that teachers of color quit, she touts the fact that she “prioritized learning about communities of color” and that this, along with her “personal experiences as a person of color” helped her in the classroom.  So, which is it?  Knowing too much of our students’ backgrounds helps or hinders?  I’m not sure which school of thought Machado advocates.  Although, I also feel the same frustration that some of my colleagues are not more willing to do the same to connect to our low-income black and Latino students.

“A lack of cultural awareness from coworkers can make people of color not feel included in their work environment, and ultimately leave.”  I absolutely agree that my coworkers’ lack of understanding of mine and my students’ culture has led me to feel left out.  However, my teaching is not about me, it is about what is best for my students.  If I leave the profession because my colleagues do not make me feel included in my work environment, how exactly will this be in the best interest of my students?  It wouldn’t be; instead of having one teacher who understands them, my students would have no teacher who understood them.  Not a reason to quit, faulty logic.

“Financial matters can further alienate teachers of color from coworkers.”  There it is, I was waiting for that one.  Teachers do make very little compared to most other professions.  This would be a reason to not become a teacher in the first place, not a reason to quit teaching.  Machado’s reasoning is that “teachers from well-to-do families have the advantage of accepting a low-paying teaching position and still have money available to them through other means.  Teachers from lower-income backgrounds do not have the same sense of security.”  Again, this would be a reason for people of color to not go into teaching in the first place, not really a reason why we are quitting.  I went into the teaching profession knowing full well what I stood to gain financially.  I suspect that Machado did as well.  Machado writes that because of the responsibility to repay student loans, “committing long-term to a salary with the likelihood of ever making more money harder to justify.”  Without making more money, Machado concludes that she and her family would not have access to a certain lifestyle, they could only aspire to.    This simply begs the question why go into the teaching profession to begin with.

Machado believes that the life-long aspiration of living a higher lifestyle is “the last issue that teachers from lower-income backgrounds struggle with.”  “To people from our backgrounds, admittance to college is not seen as only an opportunity for intellectual pursuits.  It is seen…as a way of escaping the lower social status and finally gaining the respect or financial success of the upper class.”  Once again, I must point out that this is a reason to not go into the teaching profession, not necessarily a reason why teachers of color quit.

All of the above information aside, what Machado wrote next is what infuriated and inspired me to write this blog post.  She writes that “[t]his all makes the lack of prestige and the relatively low financial rewards of teaching particularly demoralizing.  Without a financial incentive for a career in social service, it can seem more socially acceptable to only pursue this kind of work temporarily:  a short stint of self-sacrifice to prove our altruism, before moving on to something more financially ambitious.”

Lack of prestige?  Low financial rewards?  Teaching is demoralizing?  Let me tell you something lady (and here, dear Readers, I will be addressing Amanda Machado directly), your values are twisted.  I have an abundance of prestige, but, I seriously doubt it is the prestige you are looking for.  I have the respect and admiration of my students, present and former.  They see my being their teacher as important and they certainly consider it an achievement.  As for the low financial rewards, I went into this profession with a clear understanding that I would never become rich teaching.  However, I raised four children on my teaching salary.  Yes, we struggled at times, but I would much rather have my children see me struggle than for them to see me as disingenuous, which is what you are.  You write as though you were uncertain if you wanted to continue to be a teacher or not.  You never had any intention of making teaching your life’s vocation.  You became a pseudo-teacher for a couple of years to pad your resume; you wanted to look good on paper.  I put that you were never committed to your students.  You were committed to your obligation to Teach for America.  You are an ivy-league, highly educated woman of color.  Therefore, it is easy for me to presume that you did your homework before running off to join Teach for America.  And that is truly the definition of disingenuous.  Finally, a short stint of self-sacrifice to prove your altruism is patently false.  Altruism is present only when we act to promote others’ welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves.  Nothing in that definition defines you.  You were right to quit teaching.  And as one woman of color to another woman of color, our Latino students do not need your influence.

Are you still with me, dear Readers?  If you are, I thank you.  This is obviously something I needed to write.  Amanda Machado and I probably have more in common in our upbringing than I would care to admit.  However, as adults, we take different paths.  To quote Robert Frost,

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”  Peace, ~v.

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14 thoughts on “Why Teachers of Color Don’t Quit

  1. Wow Vickie! VERY we’ll said! As another person of color who is ans was born to teach, I witnessed first hand the lack of long term committed “teachers” through organizations like Teach for America. It was always very evident to me that most (though not all) we’re being “altruistic” in their roles, and self serving – be it for resume luster, student loan write-offs, or some other reason. After the commitment was over, those teachers were gone to greener pastures! This always left the same problem-teacher shortages! I always doubted the sincerity of the ivy leaguers who showed up in full force in our Mississippi Delta schools to address the so-called teacher shortages there in the early 90’s. Thanks for sharing your views on this.

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  2. I taught for over forty years. Some days were more difficult than others. One thing I will admit to is so much can happen that it certainly was not boring. History would give us tons to talk about. I tried many things to reach my students. Some worked, some did not. How good was I? I really do not know. The students thought I was fun and different and looked forward to the class but it was so long ago I now forget some of the down times. Summers were hard. I always looked forward to going back to the grind and then it became a grind and I looked forward to the breaks and summers. All and all not a bad life. I wish you well. Have a great 2014. Barry

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  5. I found this post because another article linked to it, and it’s nice to know that someone shares a lot of my thoughts after reading that article. I also blogged about my reactions to that article: http://thefirstbell.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/thoughts-on-why-teachers-of-color-quit/

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  6. Fantastic rebuttal!! After my first 3 years of inner city teaching, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t cut out for teaching. NOT because of the students or the money, but because I had a female principal of color tell me to my face I wasn’t cut out to teach, nor would I make it to administrative levels. I ALMOST left this field. Not because I lacked passion for my students, but because my confidence and esteem had been beaten to the core by teachers & administrators around me! The WORST 3 years of my career! Thank GOD I received a pink slip that year!! After that, I was hired in another urban school district, predominantly Hispanic population, where I have been teaching ever since. I am at the end of my 14th year of teaching and I completed my Ed.D. last year (oh, how I wish I could see that principal now… I hear she was fired soon after I left)!

    I AM A GREAT TEACHER AND I LOVE MY STUDENTS! Teaching is my passion! Had I quit, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I can’t see myself anywhere else. Yes, financially, it gets difficult. But when my former students come back…or my current students say to me “Thank You”, I know I’m fighting the good fight!

    Thank you for speaking up for the rest of us in this piece! Very well said!

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  8. To be brief… I always thought that coming from the same environment as those you taught was a distinct advantage, not disadvantage. Who else knows the street code and can show respect as well as give it?

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    • And to add. That was my initial reaction to Machado.

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      • Thank you, David. My students and I agree with you. Hard for students to learn from a teacher they believe is incapable of walking in their shoes. Coming from the same environment as my students enables me to guide them through the pitfalls of our public school system, middle school, high school and post secondary.

        Thanks for the read.
        Victoria

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