Hispanic students outnumber Hispanic teachers by 3 to 1
Feb. 25, 2012 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 25, 2012 at 8:26 p.m.
In an English class at Victoria East High School, two students gave a persuasive presentation about Buenos Aires to a class scattered with white, black and Hispanic students.
Every other slide, their Mexico-born teacher, Alicia Garcia, chimed in to help the girls struggling through some long Spanish words.
It was a scene less common than you might think - not the mix of languages or colors, but the teacher leading it all.
The Victoria school district's Hispanic population has steadily increased in the past decade. Last year, Hispanics made up about 61 percent of the students in the district. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic teachers has remained mostly stagnant. During the past few years, the number of Hispanic teachers in the district has hovered around 19 percent. Put another way, that means there are three times as many Hispanic students as Hispanic teachers.
The majority of VISD teachers - 75 percent - are white but teach a white student population of about 29 percent.
The numbers clearly reveal a disparity among teachers and students not just in Victoria, but across the state and nation. But, as it goes with education, the story goes beyond the data.
In the 13 years Garcia has been teaching, she hasn't shied away from sharing her story. When she came to the United States at the age of 4, her parents didn't speak English and didn't have an education above the fifth grade. Garcia said she saw her mom struggle to live on food stamps and without a car or telephone after her parents divorced.
"I share that with my students. I'm very open with them," Garcia said. "I don't take any excuses, and I always use myself as an example. I hope that will influence and encourage them."
Garcia and several other teachers said they share their personal triumphs with students in an effort to show students they get it. They know what it's like to struggle at a young age and to come out successful.
"If you're at a school that's predominantly a certain ethnicity, there needs to be somebody in that building that looks like you," said Willie Pickens, an education consultant. "It's not that the people treat you badly, and they normally don't. You just want to see somebody who looks like you, who talks like you ... who maybe understands your experience."
Jacob Castillo, a sophomore Hispanic student in Garcia's class, said students can tell when teachers go out of their way to connect with students.
"We all know that teachers aren't teachers just for the money," Jacob said. "For them to make it in a job where their ethnicity is at a low percent - to know they can make it, you can probably achieve that goal and work hard, too."
Besides being a familiar face for inspiration, teachers who reflect their student body can help ease any cultural misunderstandings that might arise in the classroom. For example, Garcia said, she's found that sometimes disciplining Hispanic students in Spanish can garner a more respectful response.
And Doreen Martinez, a new assistant principal at Patti Welder Middle School, recounted a misunderstanding from her time as a conflict resolution specialist in the Katy school district.
A parent had called, Martinez said, angry because a teacher had snapped her fingers in the face of an African- American student. The woman explained the snapping was interpreted as a fighting gesture, something the teacher did not understand or intend to imply.
"If they're not the same race, just being sensitive to the needs of a culturally diverse population, that's a big factor," Martinez said.
Pickens is a charismatic former teacher and principal from the Houston area who now spends most of his days interacting with kids across VISD campuses.
As an education consultant hired by VISD, Pickens, a black man, brings high expectations, a no-nonsense attitude and a preacher-like style that seems to win him the confidence of students - unless he's talking to them about becoming a teacher.
"The ones I talk to about education who would do well, they say, 'Hey, you all are not making any money.' They're laughing at me," Pickens said.
Particularly when it comes to students who may come from a tough economic background, teaching is a career that simply doesn't appeal to them, Pickens said.
Students of all races are more likely to pursue degrees in science and engineering, according to the latest census data. But because fewer blacks and Hispanics pursue a bachelor's degree at all, the number entering the field of education is even lower.
Foreign-born citizens who get a degree are least likely to get one in education, with only 7.5 percent doing so, according to census data.
"Your heart's gotta be in it. It's not for the money, and a lot of families need money," said Patti Welder teacher Debra Pena. Pena added a good number of Hispanic students go on to pursue degrees in business or marketing.
Indeed, after science and engineering, Hispanics, blacks and whites are most likely to get a degree in business or even arts and humanities before education.
"The fact that being a teacher is going to take going to college, dedication and a willingness to sacrifice economically ... that's a lot to ask," Garcia, said.
END OF A CYCLE
Diana López, a Mexican- American and English instructor at UHV, said Hispanic students might not be entering the education field because, without seeing Hispanic teachers, they don't connect themselves to that career.
"Another possibility is they just haven't grown up yet to get those jobs," she said. "I know the demographics are really shifting nationwide. The younger generation, just generally speaking, has a higher population."
López mentioned the persistent need for men to become teachers, too. Pickens, meanwhile, noted black men are hardly present in elementary education at all.
Every person interviewed for this article, though, prefaced their conversations with saying the ethnicity of a teacher is not nearly as important as the quality of a teacher.
"Children need somebody who's going to care for them regardless of their race," Martinez said.
"You can take any teacher regardless of their background, and if that teacher has a caring ear, that teacher can work with all obstacles," Pena added.
López said she sees the tides shifting, particularly at UHV, which the government defines as a Hispanic-serving institution, meaning it enrolls at least 25 percent Hispanic students.
"It's exciting to see all these young, Hispanic students getting their college degrees and thinking about what careers they're going to have," López said. "So many of them are first-generation college students, so they're really kind of forging the path for their younger siblings. I'm really excited to be a part of that journey for them."