From William Katt, a Social Studies teacher at Ashley Park PreK-8 School:
As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, I’ve had the privilege of celebrating alongside 130 eager, inquisitive middle school students. As we’ve studied the rich history and traditions in our common past, we’ve also been looking ahead – exploring the role of culture and identity in the future we imagine.
By 2040, nearly one of every four U.S. citizens will identify as Hispanic. As demographics continue to shift, we’re seeing Hispanics and Latinos make great strides in politics, business and numerous other sectors. But in the face of this progress, a particular leadership gap hits home for me.
Today, eight percent of teachers identify as Latino and just two percent are Latino men. As someone who has now experienced the classroom as both a teacher and student, I know this gap has real, immediate implications for our kids.
Every day, my students combat the deep inequities that plague our educational system. They attend schools where black and Hispanic students are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions. They show up knowing that, in Charlotte, fewer Hispanic students graduate from high school than any other major demographic group – just 75 percent. I see this affect my kids, but I also 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 will empower them to reach their full potential.
To change this, we have to do more to ensure that students have teachers to whom they can directly relate. Without a doubt, great teachers come from all backgrounds – and we need each and every one of them. But the fact is, in the classroom, my Hispanic heritage opens doors to build relationships with students – whether they identify as Hispanic or not.
Middle schoolers have no shortage of questions about the world around them. By anchoring my answers in what I know – from memories of Three Kings Day to the recipe for the perfect empanada – I find points of connection, along with the disconnects that open up big conversations about who we are and where we come from. We have frank conversations about the opportunity gap in our schools and broader society. We talk about the importance of intrinsic motivation and working towards something bigger than ourselves.
When I first joined Teach For America, I did it because I thought I understood what was possible in our public schools. Little did I know how quickly my students would change my own perception and expectations.This year, 13 percent of Teach For America’s incoming corps identify as Hispanic and one-third are the first in their family to attend college. I’m proud to be part of this group and prouder still to be working to empower the students in my care.
The path towards 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. This Hispanic Heritage Month, I hope you’ll join the celebration.