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Latino leadership critical for classroom success

By Karen Martinez
Class of 2014

This month, I have the privilege of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month alongside 11 resilient and energetic pre-kindergarten students. This holiday represents a powerful opportunity for our tiny classroom community to expand my students’ conceptions of what it means to be Latino and to learn more about the unique culture and stories they bring to our classroom. Knowing that my students are so young and their educational journeys so new, during this month I cannot help but look to their futures, as well.

By 2040, nearly one out of every four U.S. citizens will identify as Hispanic. But as we see Latino leadership rising across the country, there’s one leadership shortage that hits home for me. Today, just 8 percent of teachers identify as Latino. This gap has real, immediate implications for Hispanic students and is a big part of what ultimately brought me to Wilmington, D.E. to teach my young learners. Here in my new home state, the U.S. Census reports that 44.1 percent of Hispanics over the age of 25 do not have a high school diploma. This is staggering, especially when compared to the overall Delaware population — only 15 percent of whom lack a college degree.

Growing up in Jersey City, N.J., I saw the need that existed in my community firsthand. When I enrolled at the College, I knew that I wanted to use my education not to “get out” but instead to give back. It was through tutoring at a local school in Trenton with Circle K that I saw that education has the potential to be the most powerful tool in shaping our nation’s future. Working with children of all ages and backgrounds at Kidsbridge Tolerance Museum reinforced my desire to focus on urban education, so I became an early education major. I knew that I wanted to make a difference for low-income students, but I also knew that if I wanted to really change my hometown, I would have to be part of something bigger than myself. That’s why I joined Teach For America — to be part of the growing network of Latino leaders fighting for social justice in the classroom.

As a Latina, I treat opportunities to get to know my students with extra care. This month, our unit is centered on the theme, “All about me.” During our first weeks of school, I encouraged my students and their parents to make our classroom home, bringing in family pictures and sharing memories from their early birthdays and holidays. For some of my students this unit was a breakthrough. One young student, Ryan, had always struggled with his behavior and orienting himself in social situations. During his “All about me” show-and-tell, he shared about his father being away and how it affects him and his family. After that opportunity to share and open up — fleeting as it may be for a 4 year old — I noticed a change in him and his trust for our classroom community. By bringing my full self to my classroom — as a woman, College grad and first-generation college student — I have the privilege of being both a window and a mirror for my students.

The sharing of a common identity is powerful to my students, but it’s certainly not the only way to connect — all students, even our youngest learners, need teachers who they know believe in them. The path toward meaningful change has been taken by regular people committed to making extraordinary things possible. Great teachers come from all backgrounds, identities and experiences, but we are united by this difficult and deeply inspiring work. Every day, I am challenged to play a role in the future I imagine and humbled to work with a group of students whose imaginations never cease to amaze. As you imagine your own future, I hope you’ll join us.

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