Years in education: 20+
First in family to graduate from college
Middle School Science & Technology Teacher
Q: What do you have in common with your students?
A: When I started teaching in South Central Los Angeles back in 1991, I was a young Hispanic heterosexual male in a female dominated profession. Frankly, that never was an issue to me because I was raised by my mother. My father wasn't present so I was used to being around women.
Teaching in L.A. was within my comfort zone because my school was 85% Hispanic and almost 15% African American. The staff I worked with in L.A. was quite diverse too. We had a Cuban-American teacher (me), a couple of Mexican-American teachers, a Panamanian-American teacher, several African American teachers, and a few Caucasian teachers! And three teachers on staff were homosexual. A great team to work with.
I started teaching mixed classes of beginning English speakers to English-Only speakers. Because I could speak Spanish I moved to teaching full classes of beginning English speakers so my classes were made up of 100% Hispanic kids. I had Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, and Guatemalen students! Back then California had a full bilingual program so that kids could learn in their native language while increasing their English learning as they progressed instead of hearing English all the time and learning what they could.
When my wife and I moved to Washington, I left my Hispanic kids and moved to a rural town teaching kids that were predominantly Caucasian. It was a culture shock!
While I do miss teaching Hispanic kids, I do enjoy working with the kids in my community. I live right across the street from my rural school now so I’m not just their teacher, I’m neighbor to many of my students. And I’ve been here for 20 years!
I never speak Spanish anymore though. I barely remember my native tongue. I’m so Americanized that I don’t even remember what it was like being Cuban. Part of me has always thought that I am so American because I grew up in Miami. But I really didn’t. In Miami, I grew up Cuban in America. My elementary school and junior high school were both predominantly Hispanic (mostly Cuban) and African American. Now, I am all American. I’ll have to remedy that someday. I just don’t know how.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
A: I think teachers and students having things in common matters. My own daughter admitted that her favorite teacher in 7th grade was the youngest teacher on the staff. It was my daughter who told me that she really liked that teacher because she was, "relevant." That's where I got that from because until my daughter said that to me, I didn't know the generation gap was a thing.
Until my daughter mentioned relevancy, I didn't realize how much kids appreciate having teachers that they can relate to. I try to relate to my students by learning about the things they like. I have always enjoyed talking to my students about things they like. It makes school more of a family setting and less of a job. Plus, it keeps me current.
I am 49 years old, almost 50. When I started teaching in grades 4 and 5 I was 24 years old. At that time I felt that I was still relevant to my students because I was young enough to understand their pop culture such as music and TV shows. Fast forward to 2017 and I'm seeing the generation gap between me and my students more and more. I refer to things such as 9/11 and have to back up and explain because of all the blank stares I get.
Luckily, I'm young enough at heart to listen to some music that middle school students listen to, I watch TV shows and movies that middle school students watch, and I try to keep up with sports so when they talk about it I can converse. I am a geek at heart, a big fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, so I have quite a bit in common with my fellow geeky students. I'm also a user of social media and technology so I can connect with students who also use those. So while the generation gap is WIDE and very REAL I find ways to stay current while not being creepy, like saying, "tots cray cray." Yes, I've tried saying it and let's just say it didn't work!
So now I work extra hard to connect with my students. My daughter and my students are my connection to the current generation. Reading about Gen Z is just not enough, you have to connect with Gen Z kids.
Al is a 2017 Washington State Teacher Leader. Follow him on Twitter @educatoral.