This post is written by member Lorena Germán. This is the first of two parts.
Sometimes we fall into careers as we search for ourselves. Other times we fall into careers in search of answers. I was drawn to teaching against my will, I say, because of racist and oppressive educational experiences.
I was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a seven-square-mile immigrant city bustling with people from Caribbean and Central American nations. While the majority of the student population is Latinx, immigrant, and Spanish speaking, most teachers are white women. This imbalance caused cultural and language tensions in the classroom.
Here is an example: I can remember sitting in class while one of my peers read a paragraph aloud. He was moving slowly, I guess, but I cannot say I had noticed. The teacher, from the front of the room, said, “My goodness, Jose. If you could only read as fast as you move on the court!” Bravely, Jose finished that paragraph. That was in seventh grade, but I still remember that moment. I cannot imagine that Jose does not. I also cannot remember if Jose ever read aloud again. The teacher’s reference to the basketball court, in concert with other remarks like those directed at other boys of color, demonstrated a pattern. Most of those boys of color either did not pass her class or were consistently struggling with discipline issues.
I remember another teacher, in high school, who stopped speaking to me for about a semester, because I was vocal about my concerns and disapproval of the city’s school committee practices. I remember getting dirty looks from teachers and under-their-breath mumbled remarks while I was walking past them. I was ready to graduate, leave Lawrence for college, and never set foot in those schools again.
It impossible to think about my educational experience and not notice the ethnic and cultural disconnect between the teachers and the students and cite that as one of the roots of the problem. It is also impossible for me to blame students for a system they do not control or have a say in, to this day. My anger was deep and my frustration with education was wide. However, as a first-generation immigrant, I was determined to go to college, take full advantage of our family’s sacrifice, and achieve the American Dream everyone was talking about.
While at college, I discovered I had a passion for working with young people like others and myself who reminded me of my neglected peers. I thought I would dedicate myself to working in nonprofits and extracurricular youth work. I did that for several years and always noticed that my role incorporated teaching and/or education somehow. One year, when I was working as a sales representative at a women’s gym, a co-worker asked me to tutor her daughter in Spanish. This student exclaimed how well I was teaching her and how she was finally understanding Spanish. So one Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m., while sitting with this girl, I realized I was indeed going to be a teacher.
I packed up all of my belongings and headed back to Massachusetts. I had some healing to do—for both my future students and myself. I was not returning to be anyone’s savior. I was not returning with big dreams of massive impact. I was realistic and very clear on the fact that I was willingly taking on institutionalized racism. My goal was simple: I would work hard to be the teacher I never had.
Lorena Germán is a twelfth-year Dominican American educator working with young people in Austin, Texas. She has been published by NCTE, ASCD, EdWeek, and others and is an active member of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network. An NCTE Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award recipient, Lorena is a wife, mami, teacher, and writer. Follow her on Twitter @nenagerman.