The Question That Reminded Me Why I Joined Teach For America

A recent conversation with a student reminded Teach For America corps member Miguel Gutierrez of his past—and why he felt there was no other option but to become a part of this year's corps.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"How is it possible to be Mexican and a teacher?" This was the exact question one of my students asked me on my first day teaching fourth grade at Vail Pittman Elementary in Northwest Las Vegas.

Both jarring and hard to hear, this question spoke volumes about how some of my Latino students, most of whom are 10 years old, view themselves. They believed that being a teacher was just something that could not happen for them as Latinos. Moments like these fuel my fire and reaffirm my belief that there is no greater role for me to play than to be a teacher and have a hand in helping my students succeed. 

Growing up in Palm Springs, California, I went to schools that were very similar in many ways to Vail Pittman. They were designated Title I schools, meaning that a significant number of students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Despite the challenges, all my schools felt like a second home; they had a culture that made me want to be there. With my family’s support, I was always focused on doing well. I was involved in extracurricular activities and enjoyed learning. As a result of my academic progress, the dream of higher education—namely, the goal of one day becoming a teacher—was within my grasp. 

However, this hope began to waver when I encountered obstacles enrolling in college. Due to a glitch in the system, I lost my financial aid package and had to withdraw after the first semester of my freshman year. I transferred to a community college that was in the midst of budget cuts and had very few class openings. I had to battle just to gain enrollment in every class. For the first time, I had to struggle just to get access to my education and worried about achieving my potential. I saw firsthand that the education system I had relied on my whole life was not built to effectively serve me as a low-income, minority student.

Ultimately, the love and support of my family, encouragement I’d received over the years from the wonderful educators in my life, and my steadfast determination that enabled me to continue pursuing my degree. After completing two years at my local community college and transferring to the University of California-Irvine, I majored in Literary Journalism with a minor in Education.

I've never forgotten where I come from, or the countless kids in neighborhoods and situations similar to mine who are in need of the same support I received. That's why in fulfilling my lifelong objective, I joined Teach For America. Through my work in the classroom in the Las Vegas Valley, I'm helping to play a positive role in improving our education system.

In addition, I now have the privilege of being one example for my students to see what is capable for people who look just like them—who speak Spanish, just like them. Who grew up in a low-income community, just like them. There is so much diversity in our community, and we need a teaching force that reflects that reality.

Whether you decide to enter the profession through Teach For America or traditional pathways, we need more Latino teachers and teachers of color to send a powerful message to our youth about the opportunity and possibility of success. Our students need us to help them navigate our current education system so that no child will ever question what can be accomplished because of who they are or where they live. That fight for change begins in the educational battleground of our classrooms, and I hope you'll join me here.

 

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