The case for diverse majors, backgrounds in the classroom

Oct. 10, 2014, 11:21 a.m.

I’ve always loved to build things: twenty-foot tall pumpkin catapults, large-scale energy projects, landfill water filters, Habitat for Humanity homes and new business concepts. I worked among some of the most motivated and intelligent people at Stanford across a wide swath of disciplines with the aim of creating and innovating. My peers, diverse in race, socioeconomic background and life ambition, have gone on to lead in an array of fields including technology, finance and consulting. I encourage individuals from these diverse backgrounds to go to a place where they will have the opportunity to create in a slightly different but just as, if not more, meaningful way: the classroom.

After I graduated from Stanford, I joined Teach For America where I continued to build as a corps member teaching in the Bay Area. While I put together a computer station in my classroom using donated and refurbished computers and after school tutoring programs, I also worked on building something that was less tangible and just as important–a spirit of perseverance and lifelong learning amongst my students alongside my colleagues and community members. This is the potential impact of diverse teachers: bringing real-world application to instruction and anchoring classroom culture in students’ identities.

Though I am Latino, I didn’t start to truly connect to my background or understand its importance until I got into the classroom. I taught bilingual math to English-language learners—a near-perfect marriage of my undergraduate studies and my background. It was through teaching that I began to leverage my identity to help my students reaffirm theirs. If my students struggled to comprehend arithmetic in English, I explained it in Spanish with the goal of having my students speak the language of math as fluently as their peers.

But students are not the only ones who benefit from teaching. Undoubtedly, I learned from my kids and their families. They taught me how they celebrate their cultures, what their heritage meant to them and how they expressed their pride in being Latino. When I was in doubt or overwhelmed as a first year teacher, my students were there with their enthusiasm, smiles and homemade tamales. Ultimately, they pushed me to push them, hold them to high expectations and believe deeply in their best selves so that they could believe, too.

When teachers view their role through the lens of diversity while bringing in their own diverse experiences, they’re able to impact students far beyond the classroom. When one of my students ran into trouble with the law, the judge handling his case reached out to me for a recommendation of the student’s character. I sent a long letter in response noting the student had potential and that I knew he could achieve in school. When the student’s legal troubles were resolved several months later, he walked into my classroom, shook my hand, and told me, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.” It was in that moment that I realized a teacher can build much more than a growth mindset and a log of passing test scores. We can build up kids’ sense of self-worth. We can create support systems to help them cope with struggles, both academic and personal. We can foster a spirit of community and develop pride in places where shame or uncertainty may cling.

My students were and are capable of achieving incredible things. In many cases, they needed someone who understood their unique struggles to guide them down a healthy path (some wanted to go to Berkeley but for obvious reasons, I encouraged them to follow the path to Stanford). As a Teach For America alum, I know that I’m part of a growing network of leaders from diverse racial, social and academic backgrounds, answering the call to fight for social justice inside and outside of the classroom. As you think about the future you want to build for yourself, consider answering that call by bringing your unique background to the classroom.

Joe Vasquez ’11

Joe Vasquez is currently building math and reading applications at LocoMotive Labs as a data analyst and mobile engineer.

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