Try to picture the Bronx, N.Y. around the year 2000. I was entering third grade at a K-8 public school on the outskirts of a wealthy white neighborhood in the north of the borough. The majority of my teachers were white and were not from New York City. Many of them were not a day over 26. From what I recall, most of them did not speak Spanish, my first language, and reading in English remained a struggle for me for quite some time; I still could not read a full chapter-book in third grade. This was common. The school consisted of predominantly students of color and low-income students, many of whom were immigrants and were not native English speakers. Honestly, the only white girl I remember was a low-income undocumented immigrant from Eastern Europe.
Needless to say, it was a very different scene from Pomona College.
Sometimes, when I’m going about my pleasant daily routine on campus—sitting in class, laughing with friends at dinner, going for a run at sunset—the same thought, the same question comes creeping up in the back of my mind: How did I get from there to here? How is it possible that I landed at Pomona when I couldn’t even read on grade-level until fourth grade? Why aren’t there more people like me here?
After giving this more thought, I recalled the individual teachers and experiences that were instrumental to my academic success. One of the most memorable figures of my turbulent K-12 experience was my seventh-grade science teacher, Ms. Malipatil, who happened to be teaching with Teach for America (TFA). She was 23 years old and probably came to the classroom straight out of college. While the idea of a 23-year-old inexperienced teacher in a low-income neighborhood may cause a visceral reaction in a lot of people, her youth and inexperience did not really stand out to me. The fact of the matter is that even the more traditional teachers I had were coming straight out of their certification programs, with little to no experience in managing a classroom. When I recently searched for attrition statistics, this began to make a lot of sense. Out of all the public school teachers in NYC (including those from more traditional paths than TFA), approximately one in 10 quit teaching within their first year. By the fourth year, approximately one in three have moved on to different careers. Clearly, a lot of schools like mine are having trouble finding teachers who are willing to cut their teeth in low-income communities of color.
When I was 12 years old, I had no real grasp on how gender, race, and class could impact my life. However, I somehow knew that Ms. Malipatil was special the moment I met her. In retrospect, it was probably because she was the only teacher I had in my entire K-12 experience that identified as a woman of color. She may have been inexperienced, but she was incredibly smart and knew how to relate to students like me in ways that the crop of 25-year-old, white, male teachers at the school never could. For instance, my mother was always too self-conscious about her English to attend parent-teacher conferences, but Ms. Malipatil was the only teacher who was adamant enough to get my mother there and talk to her with the amount of Spanish she learned in college. She took my class on a completely voluntary field trip to Columbia University to get us to think about the future and what we could achieve. She made such an incredible effort to make us feel like we were valuable students who, in spite of the odds, could end up at a school like Pomona College.
When I spoke to Ms. Malipatil (whom I now call Anu) on the phone a couple of months ago about teaching and education policy, I realized just how much of a godsend she was to me. I still cannot believe that she was the only woman of color I had as a teacher in NYC, but I am eternally grateful that she brought her fire to the classroom. Whenever I reflect on my educational experience, I really wish I had had more teachers of color who could relate to me and support me in ways that transcend teaching experience and classroom management. Experience in the classroom is obviously a very important thing—ideally, I would have loved for all of my teachers to have been wise old sages who knew exactly how to manage a classroom and improve academic performance. However, given the current state of the economy and the appallingly high turnover rate of teachers in NYC and across the country, this vision is extremely unrealistic, especially in low-income communities of color.
thing that especially worries me about schools in low-income communities is
that, according to a 2010 report by the Center for American Progress, there is
not a single teacher of color in over 40 percent of our nation’s public schools. At
the moment, approximately 40.7 percent of the American public school population
consists of people of color, and this percentage will continue to grow rapidly
in our lifetime. While there are many great teachers from all walks of
life, students of color should see more real-life examples of
successful teachers and mentors from their own backgrounds. For me, at least,
all it took was one individual teacher of color to significantly influence how
I thought about myself and what I could achieve in school.
Jessica Peña PO ’14 is a history major who will be a Teach For America 2014-2016 Corps member in New York City.