Why I Teach

Educators of color face distinct barriers to access and opportunity in their profession. Yet they work to navigate those challenges, staying focused on their students. Read first-person stories from educators of color on why they teach.

Finding Their Moment

Mary Gilbert, Rochester

“There is this thing, this feeling that students get when they realize that they are part of something bigger, grander.”

I remember a conversation that I had with one of the vice presidents of a local university. This was during my first life, when I worked in college admissions.

We were teasing through the numbers, trying to determine which of those newly admitted students might actually enroll in the fall. I remember him referring to “the moment,” the instant when a student steps onto a college campus and makes a connection to — feels a part of — the campus.

It made perfect sense.

There is this thing, this feeling that students get when they realize that they are part of something bigger, grander. It’s the thing that we don’t always talk about, and it’s hard to measure.

But it drives us.

My school community is diverse and vibrant and exciting and brimming with potential.

And it is poor. It is not unusual for several of my brilliant seniors to tell me that they will be the first in their family to graduate from high school. Many others, when they head off to college, are the first in their families to do that, also.

The affective learning that happens in a high school supplements the academic work that happens in the classroom. There is a synergy; one reinforces the other. As a school counselor, I have the privilege of supporting both types of learning. When our students graduate, our goal is that they feel not only prepared but empowered.

Why do I counsel where I counsel? It is because I want to help my students find their “moment,” when they uncover that feeling of ownership and of entitlement. This is when they understand that they are full-fledged members of a global community with the power to effect change.

Mary Gilbert is a school counselor at the University of Rochester Educational Partnership Organization at East middle and high school in Rochester.

Building A Community

J. Miguel Jiménez, New York City

“Teaching for me is a hope to foster and build a community for all of my students — but especially to keep the candle burning for those who are out there searching for their tribe.”

When asked what information he could offer about me, his former teacher, I wasn’t sure what to expect Nico might say. He could recount any number of the trips we went on, the nickname he’d requested I call him when we first met (Sebastian), or one of the times I’d counseled him about a family situation. What I did not expect was the following: “I showed up the first day and I see this bald guy that looks kind of mean, but also reminds me of Shel Silverstein. I decided to give him a chance.”

I first met Nico during my third year of teaching. I was helping to found a school in the Bronx and he was a member of our freshman class. I’d heard of a student who’d called a few weeks before school started and requested a plan for his course schedule. He had already taken, and passed, Living Environment in the eighth grade.

I give a great deal of credit to Nico. This direct, honest, and earnest 14-year-old helped shape my present sensibilities about teaching — ensuring that I hold all my students to high academic achievement and expectations comes in no small part from Nico’s expectations of me and the system designed to educate him.

During his junior year, Nico approached me after our class and expressed a concern. Michael, a classmate he’d been acquainted with since fifth grade, was exhibiting a lot of the same behaviors from years before: ignoring directions, avoiding work, relying on his raw intellect to get by. “When is he going to learn?” Nico was dismayed at the fact that he saw another young man of color making the same mistakes made years earlier, and concerned about the ramifications it may have on Michael’s future. Nico’s compassion here often fuels me on days when I’m spent or feel I’ve reached a limit.

As a lot of educators do, I spend a great deal of my time reflecting on when I was a student. I do this both to consider the mindset of my students, and the better practices of my own teachers. As a high school teacher, I spend most of my time reliving high school — an experience most people would never willingly engage in.

What I remember most is riding the New York City buses, using the long trip from downtown back home so I’d have more time to read. As a Latino teenager in New York City in the late 90s, I found myself alone in my appreciation of books and language. Despite the amount I read, I did not find reflections of myself in the books I kept with me. I was willfully ignorant of Junot Díaz’ Drown, and was still about six years away from Oscar Wao. This solitude is what echoed to me when, in between classes, Nico expressed feeling apart from his classmates and peers.

Teaching for me is a hope to foster and build a community for all of my students — but especially to keep the candle burning for those who are out there searching for their tribe. There are few things we want more than our community to accept us, but sometimes it can take time to find that community. I teach in order to help my students improve their chances of finding that community.

J. Miguel Jimenez is a lifelong New Yorker and educator. Currently he teaches 11th Grade English Language Arts and AP English Language and Composition at MESA Charter High School in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

It Is My Responsibility

Kia Debnam, Buffalo

“I teach because it is my gift and my responsibility.”

Why do I teach?

I teach to empower; to give all children the efficacy to make informed, world changing decisions. I teach to model the capacity to be a figure of authority, and still love and show empathy.

Education has evolved past the obsolete notion that there is only one truth; I teach so that the next generation will question — everything. The classroom should be a place where we set children’s minds free; where we give them the courage to become scientists, astronauts, mathematicians, historians, authors, artists, and leaders every single day.

Within the Black community, and for other communities of people of color, education is the primary solution to being generationally exploited and targeted. “If you know better, you do better.” For hundreds of years, our languages were taken from us. For hundreds of years, we were forbidden to read or write. For hundreds of years, we were forced to be afraid of knowledge. Now that we have the freedom, everyone is still afraid.

I teach so that we are fearless. I teach so that my people, and our skin, have a voice, both within our history and our education system. There’s an ancient African proverb, “Until the lion learns to write, History will always glorify the hunter.”

I teach because I speak the language of my students — verbally, and non-verbally. The vernaculars which comprise the English language are numerous and distinctive. Ironically, though most students speak these vernaculars, they struggle to access the academic English that dominates the classroom; speaking both, I help to bridge that fissure. Through scaffolding, making inferences, and connecting new knowledge to previous, my students make the information tangible. My tone and verve perpetuate the learning styles which are prevalent at home. I marry the comfortable with the uncomfortable.

I teach because it is my gift and my responsibility. Within my culture, the young people are charged with zeal, while the old are charged with wisdom. It is imperative that in accessing the wisdom and knowledge of my elders, I pass this knowledge on in a way which is both true and heard — a way which ensures that the next generation of Brown and Black children change the world for the better.

Kia Debnam teaches K-12 English as a New Language in the Buffalo Public Schools.

Believe in their abilities

Maria Rios Castillo, New York City

“They can take the path that I chose — the path that is more difficult, but ultimately far more rewarding.”

There are many reasons why I became a teacher. For a better understanding, I need to go back to the beginning. In the middle of my 8th-grade year, my family and I moved from Venezuela to Florida. I started a new school, with a new language, and a culture that was foreign to me. I didn’t speak English other than the “Hi, how are you? My name is Maria, I’m 13 years old.” That I had learned in basic English classes. However, knowing the enormous effort my parents had made, I knew I couldn’t just give up and do the bare minimum. I had to do my best.

I’m not going to lie, it was probably one of the hardest times in my entire life. I cried almost every night trying to do homework. Feeling frustrated and angry that I didn’t know what was going on. There was a day where I did problems 12 to 72. That’s 60 problems. Turns out the teacher had said she only wanted us to do evens. I didn’t know what evens meant. I ended up excelling at math because, thankfully, it was numbers. Now you know why I love math so much. By the end of 8th grade, I tested out of ESL. By the end of high school, I had taken multiple honors and advanced placement classes.

Throughout this entire time, I had a super heavy accent, and I wasn’t too confident in my English. Many teachers supported me, while many others made negative remarks about me and my ability in their classes. I didn’t take it to heart; instead, I used it as fuel to get me going and reach my goals. I took those risks and challenges because I felt I had something to prove. I wanted to prove that despite the negative opinions of immigrants and English language learners, I could do well. I’m not sharing this to brag about my experience but to show you how hard work and perseverance truly pays off.

Success doesn’t always come easy. In fact, most things that are worth doing require hard work and most importantly perseverance. In my case, I was an illegal immigrant, or as my parents would call it “pending residency,” throughout high school and college. It was a time where there was no DACA or Dream Act. I was only accepted into my university because of, as the office of admissions would put it, “Extraordinary academic performance, school involvement, and fabulous teacher recommendations.” I was able to pursue a career because I worked hard and refused to give up even in the face of obstacles like rude remarks, racist comments from my teachers, etc. Yes, they hurt me. I spent many nights crying myself asleep. But I would have hurt myself more if I had listened to them.

I want my students to know that nothing is going to come easily to you. True success stems from hard work, grit, and perseverance. I want my students, in particular those girls and students of color, to know that they can take the easy way out, and do the bare minimum to graduate. Or they can take the path that I chose—the path that is more difficult, but ultimately far more rewarding.

Young ladies are faced with the more complex task of finding their own place in the world both as young women and as students of color. From my own experience, I want them to know it won’t be easy. As women, we are constantly judged by ours looks, what we wear, what we don’t wear. And then our intelligence is defined based on criteria set out by men, who to be quite frank, could not possibly understand what is like to be a woman, nor more pertinent, a woman of color.

I want my students to learn how to ignore societal expectations and instead indulge in their creativity. I want to inspire them to be themselves. To push forward when life gets difficult.

One of my favorite quotes is “this too shall pass.” I keep going back to this in moments where I feel like giving up, and I tell my students that in moments where they feel like they can’t anymore, to know that the hardships will pass, and after everything will be far more beautiful, they will be more knowledgeable, and far more successful. I want my girls to know that as the new generation of young women, they believe in their abilities, strengths, and ingenuity.

Maria Rios Castillo teaches 8th grade math at Girls Prep Bronx Middle School and is a member of Educators for Excellence.

An Adult They Know Cares

Quinton Mitchell, Rochester

“I want my students to understand that regardless of how society might label you, you have the ability to become whatever you desire.”

Recently I was at my parent’s home looking through some of my old notebooks from high school. As I flipped through the pages, I came across a free-write from my sophomore year, which said the following: “When I get older, I want to be a teacher.” Little did I know how much those words would come to mean in my life a decade later.

Although I’m not quite sure exactly what was running through my 16-year-old mind when I wrote those words, as an educator with three years of experience I now understand just how important those words are.

I teach because I want to make a difference in the lives of my students — both inside and outside of the classroom. I want my students to understand that regardless of how society might label you, you have the ability to become whatever you desire. I want my students to understand that a quality education can provide them with the opportunities of a lifetime. And I want my students to understand that when they come to school, they are more than just a name on a class roster. The way that I have been able to do this is through the authentic and meaningful relationships that I strive to make with each of my students.

When a student feels valued by their teacher, it increases their motivation to do well in class. Whether it’s something small, like greeting students as they enter the room, or something on a larger scale, like having a real-life conversation about a real-life situation that a student is dealing with, I try to show my students that I care. And if I’m seen as nothing else in the lives of my students than an adult who they know cares about them and is rooting for their success, then my job is done.

Teaching is one of the most rewarding, yet challenging, professions I can think of. But through all the challenges (and trust me, there are many), there is nothing more rewarding than having a student come back and let you know just how much of a positive impact you had on their life.

Quinton Mitchell is a social studies teacher and coach at the University of Rochester Educational Partnership Organization at East middle school in Rochester.

More Than Their Circumstances

Jahira Chambers, New York City

“There are a plethora of stories I can share of students who find the courage to wake up each morning, confront their circumstances, and walk into our school building.”

I despise mornings. For some reason, I’ve never come around to being awakened out of a slumber by the sound of birds chirping. And the brisk air, dark skies, and morning commuter traffic have yet to win me over.

When I transitioned into teaching from a corporate career, having to be ready to deliver content to adolescents at 8:20 a.m. was not a selling point. But here I am, five years later, hitting the “stop” button on a 6:15 a.m. alarm labeled “pursue your purpose!!!”

For full disclosure, I haven’t quite identified the purpose I’m pursuing. Nevertheless, each morning I trek from the borough of Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan because that’s where my purpose currently lies.

It lies in the hundreds of students I encounter from 8:20 a.m. to 2:42 p.m. It lies in the lunchtime conversations revealing teenage angst and the hours spent long after the school day has ended to plan, grade, and provide additional support to propel student success. It lies in the summers spent planning and developing my pedagogy. And most profoundly, it lies in the spirits of the adolescents who inspire me each day through their resilience, grit, and perseverance.

Some days are more difficult than others. The inundation of grading, lesson planning, and new mandated initiatives are often intensified by the emotional weight I carry home.

Coping with the dilemmas of tackling institutional inequity as a teacher of color and the desire to do what I can to relieve my students of the traumas and instability in some of their lives, I’ve struggled with managing a healthy work-life balance.

There are a plethora of stories I can share of students who find the courage to wake up each morning, confront their circumstances, and walk into our school building. And though each of their stories have inspired me in some of my darkest moments, it is not their circumstances that drive my desire to educate — my students are so much more than their circumstances.

Every day that I’m in the classroom, I am taking a multitude of chances: A chance at rejection, a chance to develop my passions and skill set, but most importantly, a chance on myself to make greater progress in contributing to the development of young lives who matter.

Teaching has become more than what I do; it encompasses who I was, who I am, and who I hope to be. I teach to empower young people who have been marginalized and underserved so they can one day “pay it forward.”

I teach to not only challenge, but dispel the inculcated histories and narratives. I teach to promote empathy and inquisitive thinking. Most simply, I teach because it is the single thing that motivates and ignites me to tackle the mornings I despise so desperately.

Jahira Chambers is a high school teacher in New York City.