Latino leadership important for classroom, community
This month, I have the privilege of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month alongside 90 strong, intelligent and resilient eighth graders. Together we’ll reflect on our past, reading works by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Junot Díaz and others. Through these talented writers, we will examine and share stories about our background and what it means to be Latino. We’ll be looking toward the future of Latinos in the country as we look at the lives of women like Sonia Sotomayor, while also discussing our own plans and goals for the future.
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, only 8 percent of teachers identify as Hispanic. This gap has real, immediate implications for Hispanic students and is a big part of what ultimately brought me to Chicago to teach and work with my wonderful eighth graders.
Every day, my students must combat the deep inequities that plague our education system. They head to school knowing Chicago has a high school graduation rate of 65 percent because of the obstacles many students from urban areas face while trying to complete their education. I see this play out with my students, but I know the struggle is not unique to them. Millions of kids growing up in diverse communities do not currently have access to the opportunities that would empower them to reach their full potential. As future leaders, we can make a choice to take action and change this.
In the classroom, my identity as a Latina shapes my every interaction. Because there are so few Latinos in the classroom, many of my students have never encountered teachers who look like them. The success stories my students often hear come from people who don’t look like them, so they don’t necessarily associate success with themselves and their culture. Although my identity does not change the academic instruction I provide to my students, it does provide an example of someone who looks like them, speaks like them, shares similar experiences to theirs and has successfully completed college. My presence in their lives is a privilege and responsibility to shape the narrative of what being Latina means. By bringing my full self to my classroom — as a woman, Rutgers graduate and first-generation college student — I have the privilege of being both a window and a mirror for my students.
In return, my students prove what can be done, demonstrate resilience and fill me with relentless hope of what is possible for our communities. Regardless of the obstacles they faced, my students successfully finished eighth grade and many were accepted to some of the most selective high schools in Chicago, where they continue to excel as freshmen and sophomores in competitive classes.
This year, 13 percent of Teach For America’s incoming corps identifies as Hispanic and one-third are the first in their family to attend college. As the organization continues to host national Latino Leadership Summits from Los Angeles to Colorado to New York City, I’m proud to be part of this group and prouder still to be working with my students, who so often remind me of myself at their age. They are the leaders on which our community’s future depends.
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.
Lesley Pariol Perez is a 2012 Rutgers alumna and a Teach For America-Chicago corps member.