What the Pandemic Has Taught Me About My Latino Students
Remember that the only stereotype that you encounter is the one that came from a source that taught you how to hate
This week I had a realization, an aha moment, one that requires a hundred percent transparency.
I’ve been many people in my life; a dancer, an actor, a playwright, a novelist, a high school dropout, a keynote speaker, a Spanish speaker (only to lose the language later). I worked back-office operations at Merrill Lynch at 17 years old. At 23, I was promoted to supervisor of the Money Market customer service department at Shearson Lehman Brothers, supervising a department of 10 people. I had no degree, just a GED, and no prior supervisory experience. I found out I wasn’t ready to lead people smarter and older than I was and quit. I found inspiration in tech geniuses like Jobs, Dell, and Gates.
So I took a pay cut to become a secretary at a software company where I learned a great deal about technology. But my favorite job of all was working as a creative assistant, another way of saying fun secretarial job, at the advertising firm, Jordan, McGrath, Case, and Taylor, where I learned valuable career lessons from a diverse group of talented Mad Men and Women. It didn’t stop there. I job-hopped even more (as you could do easily in the ’80s and ’90s), learned about television production at the Sally Jesse Raphael Show, and became a desktop publisher at the Society of Mechanical Engineers. My point is, I guess, I’d forgotten how many people I became in my life. After a successful run as a writer and creative, I decided to pursue a Masters Degree in TESOL. Today I am an ENL Teacher at a middle school in Corona, Queens.
Due to the pandemic, there was a necessary reorganization at city schools to meet student needs; teachers had to fill in wherever administrators needed them. I have been teaching 8th grade Math and Science (my two least favorite subjects that I know little about) to my Dominican, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Colombian, and Mexican students, who are either U.S. born or newly arrived. They are mostly brown and black kids ranging in age from 11 to 14. Some have heavy Spanish accents, some don’t speak Spanish at all, many are bilingual, but I also see a growing segment who don’t speak Spanish. In 2019, when I joined the school as their ENL Teacher, it was chaotic.
The students ruled. These cute little preteens were a handful. They hid in the bathroom stalls and behind staircases to avoid going to class. They turned over garbage cans and started fights in the hallways. No matter how many times teachers used “Teach Like a Champion” strategies to manage classroom noise and behavior, nothing worked. Teachers were spent and uninspired. Many quit or transferred. In the teacher’s lounge, I’d hear conversations about how bad some of the kids were, how impossible they are to manage, how disrespectful they are toward teachers, how they can’t stop talking in class, how some parents take their kids out of school for weeks to visit family in their countries of origin, leaving their kids with a substantial academic deficit to come back to.
Now, I was faced with 15–25 students, three times a day, quietly hiding behind anime or emoji avatars. Many students are confined to one or two-room apartments, alone or filled, where finding a quiet place to study is impossible. Some have become the babysitters of their households, even while they are in class. Many have spotty WIFI making lessons more challenging and little to no interaction with friends and no other adults to help them figure out algebra and Life Science homework.
What changed? Where were the kids who were running up and down the halls spouting four-letter words freely, chewing gum, and avoiding having to sit down and listen to lectures that have no real significance in their everyday lives? The 2019 versions of the same students I saw running the halls rarely said, “Thank you, Miss, for helping me understand my work”, Have a nice day, Miss,” “Good Morning Miss, how are you today?”
I have come to know some of the most intelligent, resourceful, polite, funny, beautiful minds, and personalities I have ever encountered in the last three years of teaching in the previous two months. Virtual education has changed teacher and student dynamics, I don’t believe forever, but temporarily, and we’d be silly not to recognize the opportunities to learn more about how we can engage with our students.
After a few weeks of teaching virtually, I found that my authoritative tone changed to one more suited for our new reality. I became a different teacher; with a softer tone with more empathy and understanding. I became, in many ways, their favorite Titi who just happened to be their teacher. They taught me new slang and music choices, I taught them to find patterns in everything they learn. I taught them to pay attention to what’s between the words, to not assume anything by just looking at it. Algebra can make anyone feel inadequate, but once I broke it down in terms they understood, they found fun in what once was intimidating.
Why wasn’t I this teacher before the pandemic? Well, what happened is, I happened. Not only was I less afraid of Math and Science, but I realized how much I cared about teaching in a way that would genuinely benefit my students. What we teach isn’t nearly as important as how we teach it.
But the aha moment was realizing that I had forgotten what it was to be a brown kid growing up in a country that looks at Latinos as unintelligent and burdensome. I had conveniently forgotten about how there were once five of us living in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side as my father worked three jobs: superintendent, MTA mechanic, and musician. There were times dad brought an entire orchestra into our living room, and I remember the noise being electrifying and unbearable in such a small space. I had forgotten how much I wanted to be blond and blue-eyed, so as to not have to defend my Americanism. I had forgotten how my indigenous aesthetics created a negative narrative in some people’s minds when they engaged with me. I could see and feel their cynicism toward me. With a third-eye, I could see who they wanted me to be, pregnant with a boatload of kids, no husband, living on welfare, and high on some cheap drug I had stolen from my drug dealer, Uncle, who lost his apartment because he beat his girlfriend. I remember my humiliation when I accidentally used a Spanish word to describe a simple English word to a group of non-Latinos. I cringed because they cringed, and immediately my Spanish language abilities abandoned me. How could I have made them feel so uncomfortable? I hated myself. I hated my culture. I hated my uniqueness. I became loud, disrespectful, rebellious, and depressed. I went on a self-destructive journey inspired by every negative stereotype America expected of me and my teachers suffered the brunt of this trauma and many of them added to this trauma by not knowing that my behavior was a result of trauma. No one could help me heal.
So when I had to say goodbye to the students, a day before Thanksgiving, due to another reorganization requiring me to teach only ENL as it is mandated by the New York Department of Education, I shed tears because I realized I’d been teaching for two months, students who were an old version of me. It was a beautiful realization and I was going to miss them. Because as an ENL Teacher, I work as part of a teacher team and I do not get the same opportunities to teach students the way a Science or ELA teacher teaches content. I serve as someone who creates the scaffolds for those students who are yet proficient in English. A much different type of teaching.
For some students, my leaving them was not the issue of the day, they were dealing with much bigger problems like food, housing insecurities, and coronavirus to name a few. But for many, a bit luckier, who had grown attached to me and my culturally relevant style of teaching, well, as they put it, “Miss, this makes me sad.” It is sad. Goodbyes are always sad. But what had been revealed to me, at this moment, is that a year ago, I perceived them to be different from me. They are not. I am sad that I know they don’t get that culturally sensitive or culturally relevant education they so desperately need in order to feel validated and included. Just having a teacher who reminds them of their Tia or Mami, comforts and validates their existence in the smallest but most personal way because representation does matter.
I’d be wrong for not acknowledging that by not seeing my student’s full potential, regardless of all the challenges they face and deficits they have to overcome, is denying my own life story. So when I hear a co-teacher call them “idiots” because she has to repeat directions, I have to admit that she’s calling me one too. When I hear a co-teacher call our students “lazy”, then I believe she may think I’m lazy too. When a co-teacher rips a student apart for simply not doing their assignment on time, I am left to wonder how this person’s misery is going to affect that old version of me in the future.
The most important thing teachers can do for marginalized students during this difficult time is to be kind, patient, and smile a lot. Let them know they are valuable and loved. Give them chances to catch up. Understand that their bad moods have nothing to do with you. Know that many are logging in from homeless shelters and have no idea what tomorrow will bring. Know that many have gone hungry. Understand that many have lost siblings and family members to violence in their countries and they walk around with broken hearts. Know that one day, they can and will become the doctor that saves your life. The teacher that empowers your child, the lawyer that helps you fight the injustice done to your family.
I hope that 2020 is the year we are finally rid of Trumpian ways and embrace kindness. Our kids have been listening to the words of a racist dictator wannabe for the last four years, and if you don’t think they haven’t been affected by his behavior and words, then you have a great deal to learn about children. But most importantly, I am grateful for what these beautiful souls have reminded me during this trying academic year: People are multidimensional beings. The minute you assume something of them, they will completely surprise you and become the complete antithesis of what you had expected of them.
Remember that the only stereotype that you encounter is the one that came from a source that taught you how to hate.