As a fifth-grade literacy teacher at Green Valley Elementary in Denver, I am constantly inspired by my students' tenacity and drive to be successful. Many of my students are non-native
English speakers, and have the challenging task of learning new material in a new language. In my classroom, my students and I seek to honor and incorporate the different linguistic and cultural backgrounds that we bring to school because I know how hard it can be to be in their shoes.
My mother and I immigrated to the United States from Mexico in search of a better life. However, the journey to the American dream was not easy. Growing up as an undocumented immigrant in Roswell, N.M., I faced many harsh realities. I was one of the few people of color in my schools and was often ridiculed for my heavy Spanish accent. I started kindergarten not knowing a word of English and was often separated from the rest of the class. By third grade, I was told I'd be lucky to obtain a GED because I was not learning English quickly enough. I began to lose faith in my ability and wondered if my teachers were right. I began to question whether being a Latina was going to limit my access to the opportunities I saw my white peers receive.
Despite what my teachers and society said, my mother continued to push me to succeed academically. She always said that education would be my pathway to a better life. She helped instill a passion for learning and a sense of urgency in me that has truly driven the course of my life. This drive ultimately led me to the University of New Mexico, where I double-majored in Spanish and political science.
Hoping to fulfill my dream of going to law school, I applied and was selected to participate in an internship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) in Washington, D.C., where I was placed in New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall's office. I saw firsthand the impact educational policy has on people of color and those living in low-income communities. I could not believe the inequality and injustices that were still taking place. Then, a recruiter from Teach For America gave a presentation to my intern cohort, and I knew that it would be my way to make a difference.
Teach For America is dedicated to developing a diverse corps of individuals who make an initial two-year teaching commitment and become lifelong leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity. When I was selecting my regional preferences on the application, I thought about locations where the number of Latinos was very high but the proportion of Latino educators was not. When I came across Colorado, I was astounded to see the demand for Spanish-speaking educators.
Teachers from all backgrounds have the potential to make a great impact and to connect with their students in meaningful ways. I am able to relate to so many of my students' experiences. Through home visits, shared dinners, and the occasional birthday party, I have come to know who my students are as people, and feel like a member of the community.
It is also important that my students and their parents know my story, including the struggle to learn English while not forgetting Spanish, and the obstacle of being an undocumented high school senior unable to apply for scholarships. Through openly sharing my story, I have been able to serve as a model of what's possible for my students and help many of them open up about their experiences, dreams, and goals for the future.
As the fastest-growing "minority" group in the United States, it is imperative that all Latinos have access to an excellent education and that we continue to cultivate the next generation of Latino leaders. Consider making an impact by joining the work to help all students receive the educational opportunities they deserve.
Ana Frias is a 2014 Teach For America-Colorado corps member.
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