A Latina Newbie Teacher Makes the Case for Teaching


"Those that can't do, teach."

What does that even mean? The fact that this saying exists in our society is a problem in itself.

I deferred my acceptance into law school to accept a job, through the organization Teach for America, as an elementary school teacher at one of the lowest performing schools in Tennessee.

¿Por qué?

Because there is a desperate need for teachers in low-income communities.

I had the opportunity to meet some of my future colleagues shortly after being hired and learned that what I've signed up for is going to be hard…really hard.

As it turns out, a large percentage of children enrolled at the school have emotional disorders or are categorized as "special needs;" yet little is being done to assist them. In fact, many are not formally diagnosed.

This forces teachers to serve as counselors, babysitters, and maybe, hopefully, squeeze in some teaching, often times with little access to extra training.

This isn't meant to criticize one particular school nor is it meant to serve as a reflection of Tennessee's education system. Rather, I want to wash sunshine over a much larger problem:

A national education system that is deeply flawed when it comes to the poor.

One of the wealthiest nations, 23% of our 2013 budget goes to military spending while a paltry 3% goes to education. Some of the highest ranking schools in the world, especially in regard to higher education are in the U.S. But we also have some of the lowest. 40% of poor children aren’t prepared for primary school and those who live below the poverty line are 1.3 times more likely to have developmental delays or learning disabilities.

Child in Poverty from Newsday: "The Face of Poverty is a Child"

In our failure to address issues that impoverished communities’ face, we marginalize the poor instead of focusing on the issues that stymie these students' opportunities to achieve in school such as not having access to nutritious food or being stuck in under-performing districts. Teachers here don't want to be assigned to many schools because of large classroom size and students who require significant behavior management due to special education needs.

Many of these children suffer emotional, behavioral and, oftentimes, physical abuse. In turn, they "act up" in the classroom making it nearly impossible for teachers to provide the best opportunity for learning when they are managing a disruptive classroom. And for the students who genuinely want to learn? They're out of luck.

Education is a basic human right.

This basic right is among of the most valuable because it leads to personal as well as societal growth. Students who get a firm hold on the first rung of upward mobility in the form of a solid education have a better shot at pulling themselves, their families, and communities out of poverty.

We know this.

We know that a country is only as strong as its weakest link.

We also know that while serving as catalysts for reform, programs such as Teach for America or The New Teacher Project shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Teaching should be as "prized" a job for a recent graduate as one on Wall Street or at a corporate law firm. After all, those entry-level associates would never have gotten as far as they have without the skills they mastered thanks to teachers--reading, writing or doing math.

Teaching requires a Master's degree, sometimes a Ph.D., and continued extra training seminars and workshops. Maybe if we had more qualified teachers and more support, students, especially those more prone to dropping out, wouldn't fall as often through the cracks.

This profession should be respected, and salaries and competition for teaching jobs should reflect that.

As I get ready to graduate and head to my Tennessee classroom, I am excited about my students, my colleagues, and the community I will call home. I'm also scared of letting them down. Still, my passion to make a difference in one student's life by sparking imagination and confidence learned at school is more powerful than my fear of failing.

The Wise Latina Club's Giuiliana Cortese

Washington, DC native and self-proclaimed Latina feminist Giuliana Cortese, is a senior at Georgetown University majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies and will relocate to Nashville, Tennessee for the next two years as a Teach for America corps member. When she isn’t writing, you can find her on a run, practicing yoga, museum hopping, or “thrifting.” Click here to read more about and connect with Giuliana.

Edited by: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

Where do you want to see our national conversation of education reform head?