Four educators offer their perspectives on how to build positive relationships with students that allow them to bring their full authentic selves to school.
Each year we observe Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15 by celebrating the cultures and contributions of Latinx citizens. Beyond this one month, we know that Latinx educators are working every day in classrooms around the country to reach, teach, and advocate for middle grades students. We sat down with four of our Latinx colleagues to learn about their paths to education careers, ways that they celebrate their heritage and their students’ cultures, and what lessons their experiences can offer to educators across ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
It’s not always a direct path to the middle
While Brenda, Shirley, Josué, and Claudia (pictured above from left to right) each found their way to working in middle level education, they didn’t all see themselves there from the beginning. “I always thought I was going to be a high school teacher,” says Josué Covarrubias, now a middle school principal in Nebraska. But that changed when he had the opportunity to work with young adolescent learners. “Those kids were still moldable but you can still have serious conversations. I just love those kids and that age of kids. Now I don’t think I can ever go back. I think middle school is where I’ll be forever.”
Brenda Perez, now a 7th grade math teacher, also knew she wanted to be a teacher but didn’t initially see herself in the middle grades. But now, it’s home. “They’re just learning about themselves and it’s fun to be part of that,” she says, “They’re weird. I like that about them, because I’m a little weird too.”
As an early career educator, Claudia Perales-Garcia, a 4th year grade 6-8 ELL teacher, also admires the “weirdness” that middle schoolers bring to the table. “I love that transitioning and coming of age era that they’re in. I love the fact that I am part of the molding of their identities.”
Shirley Vargas, now the School Transformation Officer for the Nebraska Department of Education, started her career teaching middle school. While she currently works with all schools across the state, the middle school still holds a special place for her. “You need just the right amount of both patience and creativity. There’s a level of letting yourself go. Middle schoolers allow you to be who you are and to show your passion for whatever content area you’re teaching.”
Celebrating students’, and their own, heritage throughout the year
While each of the four educators celebrates their students’ heritage in different ways, a common theme that runs throughout is the focus on using these celebrations to build strong, authentic relationships. Shirley, for example, has leveraged a huge part of her culture toward this aim – food. “When I was a world languages teacher, we’d have these great feasts where we’d invite everyone, community members, families, all members of the staff including custodial and kitchen staff. It really helped us build a deeper bond.” It also sent a message of inclusivity to students, “Your family isn’t just your immediate family, it’s the family you choose to make.”
For Brenda, it starts with music. “I like to play music that I enjoy that’s in Spanish.” But the most important way she celebrates is just by being present for her students each day. “Being my physical self. Being out there so they can see a Hispanic figure being a leader in a classroom.” These all contribute to building strong relationships with students that extend beyond the classroom to what’s happening outside of school, she says.
Josué’s effort to affirm his students’ backgrounds similarly extends beyond heritage month celebrations. For example, they’ve reviewed their curriculum to ensure that students have the opportunity to read books from Latino authors, immigrant authors, and others that offer similar stories their students can identify with. They’re also working to ensure their Parent Advisory Committee is bilingual so Spanish speaking families can fully participate. Even just speaking in Spanish with students and families makes a big difference. “That’s new to them, especially when its their principal. When the parent can talk directly to the principal without a language barrier.” He also has plans for a post-COVID celebration that would empower all students across the school to talk about their cultures and backgrounds. The aim, he says, is to send a clear message that, “who you are and where you come from is a positive.”
Claudia was surprised when she took on the role of multicultural liaison as to how little people knew about Hispanic heritage. So she borrowed from a Spanish TV station’s promo where Latinx celebrities proudly proclaimed their heritage through “I am Latino” videos. She encouraged Latinx students in the district to make their own videos. It was so successful, they’ve reprised it for a second year and expanded the videos to ask students what they like about being Hispanic/Latino. “Here are kids who want to show off their identities. So let’s help them do that.”
Building a more positive student experience
They all agree, just seeing an educator that looks like them can make a huge difference for a student. “It’s a wonderful experience and unfortunately it’s too far and few between when that happens in our country,” says Shirley, who added that seeing those similarities helps students perceive their background as an asset rather than a roadblock that must be removed to be successful. To emphasize this, she would talk with students about her Peruvian and Dominican heritage. One lesson was to discuss how each culture talks about time differently. Instead of being a bad thing, it provided her with a “vast vocabulary for different concepts.” In the end, “It helps every student. We want our students to be globally competitive and to see diversity as an asset.”
Brenda’s own education experience helped her see the importance of representation in the classroom. “I grew up very much surrounded by Latinx culture in California. Moving to Nebraska during high school was a huge culture shock. It wasn’t until that move that I realized my experience wasn’t the norm and I felt more isolated.” She sees this experience reflected in her own teaching philosophy today. “It is important to reach out to all students, especially students who might be more introverted so they don’t feel like they’re alone. My teachers were always nice, but I was going through a lot. I try to always be present with kids to try to figure out what’s going on in their lives.”
Coming from the same culture, “it comes easier to me to incorporate their background into the class,” says Claudia. Students love to identify themselves with her, and her clothing has been a powerful way to help them do that. By wearing traditional Mexican clothing to school, her ELL students who have immigrated to the United States have felt empowered to also wear traditional clothing from their native countries. “We need to give them space to be who they are and to talk about their experiences.” Another way we can do that, she says, is by incorporating their native language. Claudia remembers growing up hearing “stop speaking Spanish” and how it made her feel like she couldn’t bring her full authentic self to school. Instead, she tries to help students see their native language and their culture as an asset.
For Josué, it’s about leveraging his own experience and background to never miss an opportunity to build a connection with a student – especially if they’re struggling. “We know with middle school boys of color we tend to see more behavior issues. Some of that is them feeling out of place or support structures that don’t exist at home, others are our own biases as educators that may cause them to be punished more often. Whatever the reason, to me those are all opportunities. When a student comes into my office they usually have their guard up.”
These students have often internalized the deficit thinking of adults around them. “They have either been pegged as a certain type of student,” says Josué, “or they think they’re not good enough or my struggle is always going to be what it is.” In these instances, he relies on every advantage he has to help build them up in a positive way, including his own background. He sometimes shares his own immigration story or relates with students about the challenges of having a parent that had to work long hours. “That’s an opportunity to help them see you as their advocate.”
Growing a more diverse workforce
Unfortunately, there is still a huge dearth of Latinx educators, with only 9.3% of teachers identifying as Hispanic as of 2018. When asked how to increase the diversity of the teacher workforce, all four educators emphasized started early and by first ensuring a positive education experience for Latinx students.
“When it comes down to it, some students see an education system that has let them down or hasn’t been able to connect with them. They need to see that it doesn’t have to be that way and that they have an opportunity to change it,” offers Brenda. “If people ask how to diversify the workforce,” she says, “well first change the education system.”
Shirley added that for students who have had negative experiences, considering a career in education can feel like opening an old wound. Initially, “we need to make sure that our teacher that are coming into the field are prepared and are experiencing success teaching students of diverse backgrounds,” she says. From there, we can work in parallel with other community organizations to engage Latinx communities in recruitment efforts.
But this work will only be effective if we “restore the dignity and respect of what it means to be an educator.” She explains that teaching, “takes a deep level of commitment and responsibility and it can’t be taken lightly. There is a lot of resiliency and a certain disposition that a teacher must possess that I think a lot of people that are Latinx do possess, but they don’t see that in how teachers are paid or treated. Those pieces are integral to helping them see teaching as a viable career option and something they can do long term.”
Claudia agreed that a lack of respect for the teaching profession may discourage Latinx students from becoming educators. Luckily, she had teachers that left an impression and made her consider education as a career. “They were huge role models to me in my life.” Ultimately, “I knew that I wanted students to see me and to see a reflection of themselves in me.”
In thinking specifically about Latinx boys, Josué knows from personal experience that seeing is believing. Often, for Latino men, they so infrequently see Latinx men in education that it feels like a stretch for them to think about going into education. “It’s that initial barrier of ‘will I be different in a way that will make me feel different or will it be a positive.’” He believes the more we can do to expose them to these different career paths earlier the better. He recalls as a 7th grader taking a trip to visit a university and setting foot on college campus for the first time. The trip was led by a Latinx liaison and Josué remembers hearing him say “you could be here” and “this could open up these types of doors for your life.” His parents had always encouraged his education, but he didn’t know exactly what that meant or what it looked like. Of the experience he says, “I remember a light turning on and thinking I could go to college. This could be me.”
A message to my fellow educators
When asked if they had a message for their colleagues this Hispanic Heritage Month, each had powerful wisdom to share that will resonate with educators across cultures and backgrounds.
“There may be times where you’re in a room and you’re like oh my goodness am I the only one thinking this, or am I weird for thinking a certain type of way because your perspective or your lived experiences may be different from others. I would say activate that voice. You are usually not alone. I had trained myself for a really long time to stay quiet. I had trained myself for a really long time to not ruffle feathers, ore mess anything up. Just be grateful you have a job. This is an opportunity to make sure that we take the truth that we have within ourselves and activate that to a sense of power and a sense of change not only for yourself and your own community but for all the youth and all that are yet to follow. We’re still breaking down glass ceilings and breaking down doors and it’s important to activate our voice.
“Reach out to your students. Celebrate with them. Celebrate whatever it is that they want to celebrate, whether its independence days, sports, or extra curriculars.”
“It is time to speak up for ourselves and for our students. I think it’s important to not be afraid to voice your opinion. We belong at this table, we worked our way up to this moment. Let’s use this platform as a teacher to make a difference. Let’s not be afraid to speak up and advocate for our students. Think about what you wanted to be different when you were in school and how you want students to have a different experience than what you had.”
“First, thank you, gracias, to all of our fellow Latino educators. You are so needed in this profession. Every kid is looking for a connection with somebody who represents them in some way. Continue to use those connections to create new perspectives for kids about what they’re capable of and what’s out there for them. Advocate for them with your colleagues.” When students visit his office, Josué often has them recite a quote he has on the wall that reads:
Whoever is listening you are the person your family has been waiting generations for. You will change your family’s future forever. It is hard because no one in your family has done it before. They have been waiting for someone to make it possible. Don’t quit. Fight for your future and your family’s future.
“They need that, he says, “they need to hear that even if nobody else has done it, you can and I’m here to help you.”