My First Year as a Teacher of Color
Teaching Against the Grain
Illustrator: Adolfo Valle
Interviewing for my first teaching job out of school, I arrived excited in a suit and tie as I was walked to a sunny corner office to meet the principal. A charming middle-aged white woman with a bright smile, a bubbly personality, and contagious excitement, she seemed eager to get to know me and asked to hear my story and find out how this man of Color decided to go into teaching.
I wasn’t sure where to start, so I decided to begin by telling her about how I was a child of immigrant parents who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the 80s. My mother worked for five years in a nail packing factory to obtain a green card through a work contract in order to get my brother and me legal documentation to enter the United States. I was raised by my grandparents from 1st to 5th grade until my mother arrived to retrieve us with green cards. We emigrated from Ecuador and arrived in New York, where a rich community of friends and family welcomed us. I learned English as an ESL student in middle school, repeating 5th grade and assimilating into a culture that valued me as an independent learner more than an interdependent community member. My mom and stepdad worked two jobs and I was in charge of looking after my 8-year-old brother when we arrived home alone after school.
I continued and told her about my journey through high school as a boy of Color who didn’t see himself represented in his teachers. I did not know that I was capable of attending college until I was peer-pressured by other students of Color into applying. It was with the support of the Educational Opportunity Program at Stony Brook University and a community of students of Color that I completed my college education. Later in my career I decided to attend graduate school where I reconnected with my roots as a student of Color learning to be a responsive teacher of Color. My foundation in teaching had been molded by a powerful group of instructors, families, and community mentors who taught me the importance of teaching as a community teacher. This meant establishing relationships with students, their families, and our communities; and elevating their voices and presence in school; ensuring that they had access to school. This was the community, family, and politics team in my masters in teaching program at a university in Seattle. They were an essential part of my learning, supporting me to stand up as a teacher fighting for social justice and authentically partnering with families.
I went on to share intimate details about my upbringing in the United States and the difficulties of learning English throughout middle school. I told her about how I had struggled to fit in as a young boy learning English and hoping to be seen as part of the crowd. Right away this charming, bubbly principal drew parallels between my upbringing and the students who were at this school. She said she prided herself in “knowing people’s stories.” After listening to mine, she shared that her professional goal was to establish strong relationships with communities of Color. I believed I was being heard and this would earn me respect, trust, and support. However, as time went on, my story became an object for her to flaunt. The principal told me I would be an ideal teacher for the students at this school because of my experience and because I spoke Spanish; she needed help reaching out to Spanish-speaking families. What I did not realize was the extent I would be positioned as an asset and used as a teacher of Color, without any real support.
Popsicles in the Park
Once I was hired, I was eager to set up my 5th-grade classroom. This was the position I had been seeking since the beginning of graduate school. I wanted to build an environment that reflected my students’ cultures and fostered collaboration. This was my chance to provide my students with everything that had been kept from me when I went through 5th grade.
I prepared a plan to build relationships with my students’ families and elevate the wisdom they held. Thankfully, I was not alone on this journey. Two other teachers of Color who I studied with during my masters were also hired as 1st- and 2nd-grade teachers. Lam was born in a refugee camp in the Philippines, immigrated to the United States, and grew up in White Center, Washington. Her family’s struggle and resilience helped her appreciate the strength and beauty in immigrants’ stories. Nicole was born and raised in Seattle and came from a large Philipinx family with a heart and history for community building and civic advocacy. She shared her wholehearted belief in developing the native languages of our communities of Color.
As we struggled as 1st year teachers, we debriefed with each other every day and eventually established a weekly routine of gathering to share our stories and ask each other questions over tea: “What do you do when your kids defy you and refuse to work? How do you call their parents and deliver disappointing news and simultaneously ask for support? When, why, and how do you approach administration for support with behavioral problems?” During our weekly gatherings we commiserated, recalled our experiences, and worked together to build solutions.
About 70 percent of the students at our school receive free or reduced school meals and more than three-fourths of the population of about 650 are kids of Color. I saw the demographics of the school as an opportunity to make connections, but I had not considered how difficult it was going to be to engage with families. I began to connect with families by making phone calls to introduce myself and invite parents to share popsicles in a nearby park before school started. Our phone conversations were awkward at times; this was the first time I was speaking to them as their child’s teacher and I wasn’t sure of what to say. Other times I was untimely for families’ work schedules and I left voice messages hoping for a call back.
Unfortunately, only three families from my class of 26 came for popsicles in the park. We had retrieved our class lists, made printed invitations and coordinated with our school’s administrative assistants to notify families. We purchased popsicles and during the last minute realized that we were at the wrong park. We didn’t know the system, we didn’t have funding, and we didn’t know the neighborhood. This community-building work was going to be harder than we thought.
We continued our plan to establish relationships and build our class community by inviting families to schedule a home visit. We each decided to dedicate specific times and days during the week and weekend to meet with our families. We met at the library, the park, at coffee shops, and their homes. Our visits were an opportunity to learn about our families and build stronger partnerships with each other.
I went with Lam on one home visit to serve as a Spanish interpreter. She entered the home first and made sure to ask, “Shoes off?” The family welcomed us kindly. When we sat down, Lam listened intently. When it was her turn to share, I learned about her many siblings, her annual celebrations, some of her struggles growing up, and her dog. She shared all of these from a little paper bag in which she carried a handful of pictures and items that were part of her identity. Her exercise in unpacking pieces of herself was demonstrative and sweet. The parents reciprocated, and the exchange was rich. Eventually I was invited to share a couple of facts about where I came from. It was a joy to interpret and to help make this connection between parents and the classroom teacher and also to be invited to be part of the exchange.
I was able to visit with 10 of my 26 students. Despite reaching out with phone calls, in-person requests, and notes home, I didn’t receive an invitation from most of the families. In most cases their long work days and home demands did not leave much time to meet. Nevertheless, I felt like I made an impact with my students as I began to establish authentic relationships.
For the 10 home visits I did conduct, the work was exhausting. I was showing up to football games, meeting at the library, going to homes after a full day of teaching or during my weekends. I had to be prepared to be vulnerable and share my story with parents as well as listen to their hopes and dreams for their child. These exchanges were time-consuming, tiring, and worth every minute. I gathered valuable insight to connect and motivate my students in specific ways. For example, when my student Pedro was having a hard time getting ideas for narrative writing, I would get on one knee next to him and remind him of the things that were important in his home. I encouraged him to write about how he cared for the chickens at home and share why they were important to him. This was a spark that helped him access writing and celebrate his home culture.
Throughout the year, we each found different ways to continue to cultivate our relationships with families. We made routine phone calls to update parents about how their children were learning and beginning to fulfill the hopes they had shared during our home visits. I opened my classroom door for celebrations of students’ writing that told stories of their lives; I made sure to include families and community members. Our administrators welcomed all these efforts and our colleagues expressed admiration. I shared my immigrant experience with many of my families and I taught explicitly about it to my students. I found that my experiences and culture enhanced my connection with families and enriched the community in my class. Establishing a strong community was essential to help support students that were heavily impacted by trauma and struggled to engage in the classroom.
“Do you have a tortilla maker at home? I need it for an art project.”
Throughout the year, my two colleagues and I constantly invited the other teachers to join our endeavors: We encouraged them to make positive phone calls, help us host popsicles in the park, and then home visits. Unfortunately, their engagement was limited to compliments like “Home visits? That’s such a good idea” and “That’s such a great way to build community!” Despite the positive feedback, each invitation was declined. Another classmate from our master’s cohort, who had also been hired around the same time, valued our work but considered it something to tackle the following year once her classroom was more established and she felt more confident.
But this work is not optional, it’s foundational. Community-based teaching is the only way I see teaching. But based on their responses, my white colleagues seemed to view my engagement with students and families in culturally responsive ways, particularly “outside” the classroom, as add-ons and unnecessary.
I endured weekly staff meetings where colleagues continually dismissed my experience and knowledge. Since I was the youngest teacher in my grade level team, I was considered the most tech savvy and least experienced. They saw me as the tech guy who could type notes, create graphic organizers, and email administrators. However, they ignored my recommendations for read-aloud books, thoughts about support for ELL students, questions about the cultural responsiveness of the curriculum, and examples of student work. Often, colleagues handed me binders of curriculum or copies of worksheets specifically aligned to Common Core State Standards that were devoid of characters, language, and culture that reflected my students. I brought forth examples of writing my students had completed and shared how I worked to make connections to their homes to motivate their writing, but these samples were just used to calibrate our grading and ensure we were aligned to Common Core State Standards. My colleagues dismissed the heart of these stories and instead asked me to share why Pedro’s story was worthy of meeting state standards.
Our administrators expressed appreciation for the results of our labor — fewer office referrals for student behavior, complimentary parents — but failed to provide mentoring, professional development, or even celebrate our successes as first-year teachers. As a teacher of Color, I learned my double value. When our leadership or colleagues needed support for our kids and families of Color with interpretation or building connections, administrators valued and proudly presented me. During conferences when there weren’t enough interpreters, I stepped up to support my team with interpretation. At the same time, in our team meetings and circles of professional development, my colleagues dismissed, ignored, or silenced me. They delegated tasks to the new teacher but did not invite me to share what I knew.
With fragile white colleagues, I constantly negotiated my newfound realizations of my position. Listening to their condescending conversations about our students of Color and perceiving their dismissiveness of my identity, I did not feel safe to speak up. When they shared their skepticism about what their “ELL kids couldn’t do,” I wish I would have been able to provide a compelling story about how I learned English as I repeated 5th grade. I wish I could have shared how their compliments about my English sounding “so good” were an affront to my language abilities. I wish they would have been willing to do more listening about my origin and my ancestry and why teaching was important to me. Instead I code-switched to be palatable and to protect my core. To keep my identity intact and maintain pieces of my culture private and free of judgment and dissection. My vulnerability had already been taken for granted and I wasn’t willing to risk myself again. I made sure I managed my tone by trying not to be “too loud” or “aggressive,” and I tried to deliver my insights regarding community teaching in forms of questions, rather than statements. I sought to use a calm tone to share insight from my upbringing and what it was like to grow up as an immigrant child learning English. There were times my colleagues asked questions like “Is it like this for all Hispanics?” or “Are all Mexican families this way?” or “As a speaker of Spanish, does this make sense?” or “Do you have a tortilla maker at home? I need it for an art project.” They seemed to see me as the representative of anything and everything related to Spanish, “immigrant,” and “Hispanic.” It didn’t matter that I had emigrated from South America or that I didn’t grow up eating tortillas. It seemed to me that, to many of my colleagues, I was and still am the one thing they need to “serve” our communities of Color. I navigated these professional spaces and learned to cope with my discomfort in order to maintain my colleagues’ comfort.
“If we don’t celebrate us, who will?”
I found myself identifying more and more with my students and families as I heard colleagues describe them as kids who “couldn’t,” “didn’t have,” “were unable,” “incapable,” “too low,” “slow,” and “weak.”
During a meeting early in the year when we set up partner classrooms for support with behavioral problems I saw a note between two intermediate teachers that read “If they give me any problems, I’ll send them to you, because you know how to keep those little fuckers in line.”
I had several struggles with students in my classroom that had intense behaviors as a result of trauma. The worst days and most hurtful blows came from Dany. He was living in an abusive home and he, like his mom, did not have much of a choice. I still remember him walking away and saying “Fuck you! I hope you die!” or “Fuck you! I hope you don’t teach in this school again!” or “You suck! Why did you come teach here?!”
These all cut deep and they were mostly reactions to my demands for him to do work. I had come up with accommodations and provided him with choices but he still refused. My administration support team attempted to intervene but this mostly resulted in taking power away from me and undermining the decisions I made to support him and the rest of the boys in my class. I remember our behavior specialist reminding me, “You shouldn’t take the comments personally.” I would respond with a kind smile and think, “How could I not? You try.” How could I get over the anger, pain, and frustration I saw in his eyes, that deep look combined with expletives as he walked away after throwing a chair or pencil or a book without caring about anyone? More instances of support followed with my administrators saying things like “this is the reason we hired you.” Or justifying my situation by saying “Look at all of the great experience you are getting your first year in teaching,” and “You are going to be so well prepared for the years to follow.”
From the beginning of the year I had noticed that some of my students would need more consistent support. I decided to make positive phone calls on a weekly basis and celebrate the learning students were doing in class. I would also look for as many opportunities as possible to compliment students for positive behavior and talk things out when behaviors escalated. I wanted to do everything I could to keep my students in class engaged. Every week I chose our Student of the Week and every student would write a compliment for them and they would receive a certificate to take home. Throughout the school day I had learned to provide students who were struggling with choices in their learning and give them a chance to have control in their lives. However, this was not enough to help a few of the boys in my class.
There weren’t enough resources to help me heal my students. Our school counselor, a white man named Tim, showed up to my class to teach lessons on social-emotional learning. They were engaged and responded to his easy-going attitude and quick jokes. I sat to the side in awe of how he would command their attention and participation. At the end of each lesson he would hand my class back over to me and quickly exit, without thinking twice about elevating my position in front of my students or what would happen the minute he left the room. This left me feeling inadequate and dug into my confidence — while I was working hard to build relationships with my students, I was also still struggling as a new teacher to contain social and emotional upheaval. It felt like Tim granted support and relationships to my students but not to me. My role and capacity were continually undermined by interactions like this in which well-intentioned individuals provided temporary interventions but did not support me in learning to change the dynamics in my classroom myself.
In one instance our assistant principal was visiting my class to provide support with behavior interventions during an interactive class project. He approached the group of three rowdy boys of Color: one Samoan, one African American, and one Somali. My Somali student, Isaac, snapped back at the assistant principal. I remember hearing the assistant principal’s stern voice say, “Get up and come with me.” Isaac refused to comply. At this point, this 90-pound boy was yanked up from under his armpits by a 6’2″ 232-pound former college football player with a mission to set an example. The chair flipped backwards, and he was dragged out of the classroom as he protested. I remember the door closing slowly as I saw his feet drag on the floor. My class stood silent and I was frozen in disbelief. I remember thinking, “Isaac has sickle cell! He can’t get injured! What just happened? Did he deserve that? Is that how it should be done?” Our assistant principal was our school leader; surely, he would know what’s best for our boys of Color? I understood the importance of teachable moments, but I also knew that brutality was not a necessary component of this or of my principles in teaching. What I knew for sure was that it was traumatizing for Isaac, myself, and all the students in the class. In my search for models of good discipline, how was this supposed to support my teaching? Later my assistant principal told me: “I wasn’t about to let him punk me and talk back to me like that, I had to set an example for the rest of the boys.”
Maintaining a strong classroom community through this turmoil was exhausting. I arrived at home after a 10-hour day to plan for at least another three hours, and felt I was sacrificing my family life. In the midst of all of this, the weekly tea times I shared with my community teaching partners were a space to validate our experiences, make sense of the chaos, and sharpen our teaching skills. Here we didn’t have to code-switch or think twice about what we said. We were raw and the only ones we had to comfort was each other. We would say, “If we don’t celebrate us, who will?”
Throughout the year we found a few established colleagues who listened to us and encouraged our continued success. I was fortunate to establish a trusting relationship with a teaching coach from the district. She was a white woman and at first I was skeptical of her as she arrived the first few days with a clipboard in hand. One of the first times she came in I was having one of many arguments with one of my boys of Color about his refusal to read. Simultaneously, two more of my boys were smirking at the situation and another one of my boys was shooting spitballs. This was right before their lunch and recess. I was scared of what she would say about seeing me fail at classroom management. However, after she observed these interactions she complimented the way I maintained my cool and didn’t give up.
This was one of many moments of turmoil she witnessed and every time her feedback was positive and free of scores or standards. She found highlights and left notes that encouraged me to maintain my high expectations and continue to foster relationships with students. Her supportive and nonjudgmental approach helped me grow as a teacher.
Debunking the Myth
I wish there had been many more instances of support like the spaces my colleagues and I created to heal each other — like the support from my teaching mentor and the appreciation we received from our families. But, overall, our school and district saw the value we brought with our experiences, yet was not willing to give anything back.
This narrative of empty support persists in the retention and development of teachers of Color. I read about the barriers that existed for teachers of Color before I joined the profession — that community building is an add-on and data collection the priority; that teachers don’t use materials that reflect the ethnicities and communities of their students. Before the end of the year I saw how real these barriers were. We worked to bring up the importance of building relationships, building strong and safe classroom communities, providing support for family and students’ trauma, and educating white colleagues about racism. Our administrators ignored all of this.
Now that I’m in my fifth year of teaching, I have had the opportunity to attend a variety of social justice conferences, statewide union meetings, bargaining tables, and one-on-one meetings with leaders of our union and school district. They all agree that we need more teachers of Color. However, none of them has a plan to sustain us and help us grow to address the problems I faced in my first years of teaching. Teachers of Color, like me, have a specific experience and ideas to help improve the status quo, but it doesn’t look like anyone is actually listening.
Year by year, the myth prevails: Teachers of Color “burn out” because they can’t handle the job. The reality is that we are pushed out by an education system that has twisted priorities. Our commodification as a way to check a box for diversity is repugnant.
Looking back at my interview and induction to my school, there are many questions I should have asked my principal: How would she ensure equity in our teaching and learning? In what ways would she commit to all voices being heard in meetings? What were the culturally responsive books and strategies available? How would she deal with microaggressions upon her teachers of Color? Why was it important to have teachers of Color in her school? How was she going to help us succeed in our first five years?Ê
I should have made a stronger case for my identity as a teacher of Color and demanded support early on. Looking back, I am not sure what this could have been. However, I do know that connecting with other teachers of Color throughout the district and state has been a huge support. Validating each other’s experience and being in a safe space to share and grow as educators is tremendously valuable. Now I know better and I am able to navigate with finesse through daily microaggressions, racist curriculum, well-meaning white colleagues, grueling assessment demands, etc. I’ve developed these skills with the support of my teaching community and the relationships that I fostered with students and families.
What I demand now is authentic action and conscious reflective practices from all of my colleagues. Instead of using what we are, show up for us in substantive ways with action and less empty talk of “being an ally.” Elevate our voices on decision making; don’t volunteer our bodies to lead the learning of white colleagues. Step up and demand racial bias training. Think critically and authentically about your privilege and the intersectionality of your identities. Undermine your privilege and provide us with a shoulder to step on so we can collaborate equitably. It’s time to end the reign of empty rhetoric and hollow support for teachers of Color.