Why I Teach: Students of Color Who Look (and Don't Look) Like Me

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Monday, June 1, 2015

Teach For America's Top Stories is proud to present "Why I Teach," a weekly series where our 2015 Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching recipients share what makes them passionate about the classroom. 

This week, Laureen Wimbley (Houston '07), shares how her eight years as a sixth-grade science teacher at YES Prep Southwest have both shifted and strengthened her mind-set behind her longevity in the Lone Star State.

 

Laureen with two of her students on graduation day.
Laureen with two of her students on graduation day.

 

I always wanted to teach Black kids. Kids who looked just like me, came from similar backgrounds and had the same desire to succeed. Kids who needed a role model, someone who could affirm their existence—not simply out of sympathy or compassion, but because I empathize with their upbringing.

As a first-generation college student from a low-income family, I couldn’t wait to teach in an inner city and empowering the kids there. When I chose to accept Teach For America’s call of duty, I had no idea about Houston’s demographics. On my first day in the classroom in 2007, I was relieved to see that my class was about 50 percent Black and 50 percent Hispanic.

Unfortunately, as the years have progressed, this ratio has not maintained. Year after year, the number of Black students at my school declines. This drop in numbers causes me to reflect on what brings me back to the classroom. However, while I always have the opportunity to leave my school and go somewhere in Houston with a higher percentage of Black kids, here I am eight years later at YES Prep Southwest. This year, out of a class of 144 sixth graders, I have 10 Black students.

Although it bothers me, I realized that just because I’m not teaching a class full of Black kids doesn’t mean that I’m not doing what I intended to do when I decided to pursue a career in education. In other words, despite me feeling conflicted about WHERE I teach, I’ve never lost the passion for why I teach. Last year, when my first class of sixth graders graduated and revealed where they would be attending college, I felt affirmed.

Leaving a Lasting Impression

Because I work at a combined middle and high school, I am able to see my students throughout their journey from sixth through 12th grade. They arrive to school earlier and depart later than any other students in the city. They endure the strict discipline and homework policies. They give their all despite not having state-of the-art facilities, but rather, classrooms housed on wooden decks.

 

Laureen's students volunteered to clean up a local park during Service Day.
Laureen's students volunteered to clean up a local park during Service Day.

 

From the first day of sixth-grade orientation to graduation day, I see the faces of their family members, beaming with delight, just glad that their students are afforded the opportunity to “climb the mountain” to college. I don’t take the responsibility of helping them take those first steps lightly.

Long after they leave middle school and cross over to the other side of campus, students continue to drop by my room to chat with me about the stresses they are experiencing—both academic and personal—because they trust that I can relate. Parents stop me at sports events, in the front office, or even as I walk to my car, just to share their child’s latest success or struggle.

I went to a school similar to YES Prep where the expectations were high, the hours were long, and the work was rigorous. My friends and family members didn’t always understand why my mom chose to place me there instead of my local high school, but the goal of college was much more attainable.

Likewise, my students often find themselves struggling to keep up with the demands of such a setting and going home to an environment that may look totally different. Through these candid conversations and interactions with families, I’ve come to realize that the dream of educational success is universal. The goal of doing well in school and making your family proud knows no color.

While I may not be teaching kids who look just like me, they are in many ways a portrait of my younger self. Every day I am given the opportunity to teach kids from similar backgrounds and who have the same desire to succeed. I teach kids who need role models, and I can, in many ways, affirm their existence not simply out of sympathy or compassion, but because I empathize with their upbringing. I am fulfilling my passion and my responsibility, choosing to return each year to a low-income community, similar to the one I grew up in, and empowering our kids. 

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