When I moved from Puerto Rico to the Northeast, I was 9 years old and I could barely speak English. I had moved to a small town in the suburbs and my family was the only Puerto Rican family in town. It was hard at first trying to make friends while still learning English. It didn’t help that none of my teachers could relate to me.
In fact when I was in fifth grade my teacher ridiculed me in front of my class when I couldn’t pronounce the word “budge.” My accent would only allow me to say “bush,” and she told me to quit fooling around and say it seriously.
But I couldn’t.
It was one of the most embarrassing moments in my life having the whole class laughing at me and my teacher not offering a single ounce of sympathy. Instead, what she gave me was a recommendation for speech class and a piece of advice. “If you want to make it in America, you need to speak English.”
For a year I took that speech class and I hated it. Every day was the same repetition of trying to rid me of my accent, repeating the same words for hours just so that I could be perceived as “normal.”
Connecticut’s population continues to grow more and more diverse each year. In fact, according to the CTdata collaborative website, Connecticut has the highest diversity index in all of New England and has experienced an increase of nearly 10% since 2010.
This is great, but Connecticut is lagging behind in one aspect. There is a lack of diversity in public school teachers in Connecticut.
My parents always told me to be proud of where I’m from and I am proud to be Puerto Rican. However, it was hard at times and I had a real struggle with my identity as, after I lost my accent due to the speech classes, I didn’t know where I belonged. For white Americans I was always going to be Hispanic but now that I had lost my accent how would I fit to other Hispanics? Would they look at me as just another American?
When I went to middle school though, I was excited to meet my first ever Spanish teacher and finally have someone who could relate to me and who I felt I could talk to. But that wasn’t meant to be. My first Spanish teacher was a guy from Ireland who learned Spanish in college. But I thought — next year I’ll get an actual Hispanic teacher. However, once again I had a white woman who was from New Jersey and had learned Spanish in college.
This cycle continued all the way until I was a junior in high school where I finally had my first native Spanish teacher. She was Puerto Rican as well and it felt so weird for me to see someone who had gone through a similar experience my family had gone through — someone who understood what it was like to be Latin in a small predominantly white town.
She was the nicest person and was always willing to help, when my parents came to school it was refreshing to finally see them smile and really talk to a teacher. They were laughing, sharing stories about where they’re from and how their families are doing in Puerto Rico.
However, I’ll never forget one particular lesson she taught me. Some kids in my grade had been skipping classes and getting away with it. But once, I showed up late to class by two minutes and the school called my parents. I was so mad because I had seen so many other kids just not come back to classes and nothing happened to them; meanwhile my parents were called because I had showed up two minutes late to a class?
I told my teacher about what happened and how I felt and she said, “People like us have to do double the work, for half the credit.” I’ll never forget that and to this day it still resonates with me. I finally understood that the disadvantage I had was real and other people like me also felt that way.
My Spanish teacher was a great person and was a mentor to me. I’m glad I was able to be her student and I wish I had other teachers who were Hispanic as well.
This is why I fully believe that Connecticut should do more to promote a diverse faculty in public schools. According to a report by Education Reform Now fully 50% of students in Connecticut are non-white. However only 10% of teachers in the state are non-white. A study from the Brookings Institution shows that having teachers which non-white students identify with results in them getting better grades, better attendance and being suspended less.
Connecticut needs to do more to put non-white students in positions to succeed. I believe that Connecticut should establish a minimum for the amount of non-white teachers in each school.
I can only wonder how differently I would view myself if I had someone to help me when I was a child. Students of color shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed or ashamed of who they are and what their culture represents. They shouldn’t have to hide in the crowd and try to change themselves to feel more comfortable at schools. Students should be proud of where they come from and they need teachers who will be able to create that environment and safe space for them.
There are more and more qualified and great non-white teachers who would love to help non-white students just like them because they went through the same experiences growing up. According to the NEAG School of Education at UConn, “the number of students of color has more than doubled in the Neag School’s Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates and increased by 33% in the Integrated Bachelor’s/Master’s Teacher Education Program.” So there are more teachers who are graduating every year who are non-white. It’s not that there is a lack of diverse teachers, these teachers just aren’t being hired.
I hope that Connecticut school districts can really start to make a change soon and begin to hire more diverse teachers. I believe that every student deserves to be able to feel comfortable with their teachers. I’m extremely lucky to have had at least one teacher who I was able to relate to and confide in.
Gabriel Melo is a recent graduate from the University of Connecticut with a degree in Journalism.