As a part of my series on educator diversity, I’m having conversations with educators of color that have expressed an interest in speaking with me about their experiences. The goal of these conversations is to provide voices to the plight of educators of color, and to show how we can not only get more young people of color into classrooms and into education in general, but that investments also need to be made on the back end to ensure we keep really good educators in the work.
For this interview, I have the opportunity to speak with Alexander Calderon, current English and Social Studies teacher in New York City and Latinos for Education Latinx 2022 Teaching Fellow. Alex is a first generation college graduate that believes that experiences through worldly matters help us grow intellectually. He is also a podcast host, where he connects with different guests to talk about their experiences as first generation college graduates and educators.
Malcolm Davis (MD): Hi Alex, thanks so much for joining me for this conversation! I’m excited to learn more about your perspective on how we can make teaching more appealing to current and future educators of color.
Alex Calderon (AC): Thanks for having me Mal, looking forward to this conversation!
MD: To kick things off, let’s talk about what’s preventing young people of color from becoming educators. You said that salary is a major issue, can you go into more detail about that?
AC: For me, I’m a first generation Latino male and in NYC there’s the initiative NYC Men Teach to get BIPOC males into the Department of Education. I feel like when you go to school, the mantra is to acquire social mobility but in fields of public service, like Guidance Counseling, or teaching, it’s not as heavily valued. That’s what’s keeping a lot of young people of color from choosing the teaching path.
MD: So for you, that social mobility ties directly to salary/compensation?
AC: For sure. There’s a lot of focus on loving children but very little on compensation, and you don’t really start to see an uptick in compensation until you get into the higher end of administration. Many of our young people just don’t see themselves becoming educators, especially if they’re first generation and are trying to provide for multiple people financially.
MD: That makes a lot of sense, and several of the interviews I’ve conducted to this point also focused on salary and how for so many educators the money isn’t enough to live on. Interestingly enough, you also said salary is the reason current educators of color are leaving the work, can you expand on that?
AC: Once you hit the glass ceiling of your teaching career, you’re not necessarily getting a pay raise and we aren’t as lauded. At the end of the pandemic we were lauded, but then things went right back to normal and we were being called lazy.
MD: I really was holding out hope that online learning due to Covid would shift the narrative and perspective on the importance of educators. But the minute that we went “back to normal”, so did the narrative around educators in this country.
AC: Right, and teaching isn’t as attractive of a field as law or politics where the ceiling is a bit higher as far as compensation, so education isn’t as alluring in comparison. With teaching, you don’t necessarily get paid for the hours you put in the same way as other professions, which makes it harder.
MD: Agreed, we have a ways to go with compensation. But things do seem to be trending in the right direction though, some states are creating a minimum salary for educators across the board. Also there’s the influx of funding due to Covid that’s given charters and districts more flexibility to pay teachers better. As a person of color that had quite a few educators of color growing up, how did that affect your sense of culture and pride as a person of color?
AC: In second grade I had a hispanic teacher, Ms. Gonzalez, and she was able to communicate in English and Spanish with my mom which was critical. My mom didn’t know the system here for education, so being able to have a teacher that bridged the gap for my mom was huge. When I look back and think about why teacher representation matters, it’s things like this. I had teachers who had similar cultural backgrounds and they understood hardships I was going through with a single parent growing up in an impoverished area.
MD: This is why I’m having these conversations, because the cultural competency piece is SO important. Many people underestimate why we need more diversity with teachers and school leaders, but your own experience is a great reminder.
AC: The teachers of color also knew my neighborhood which was important, many times you have teachers coming from more affluent areas and don’t have the same cultural understanding. Having those teachers helped me understand the importance of my culture and upbringing, but my experience was still whitewashed though. I still remember my 5 teachers of color, which is more than a lot of people from my background had.
MD: (laughs) Certainly more than I had! So did having so many influential educators of color make you want to become an educator yourself?
AC: In an indirect way. I knew I wanted to help youth in some capacity but I didn’t know how or where to begin. I started with picking up English classes in college because I like the analytical process of reading. I then started thinking about what I could do with my major and one of my guidance counselors elected me for a mentorship and that led me to add the education major.
MD: That’s great that your guidance counselor steered you in the direction of something that had an opportunity to transform your life and so many students that you interact with.
AC: Yeah, in an inadvertent way those experiences with my educators of color and my guidance counselor led me to this point. One thing though, I didn’t understand how tough it is to be a teacher. Now I realize it’s a good job for inspiring students to be their best selves and building a rapport. It’s fun though, there are so many great moments with my students that I hold on to.
MD: That’s such a great note to end it on Alex, there’s so many joyful moments that we have the opportunity to share with our students and their families. While education is a hard field, it’s one of the few where you can actively see the direct impact you’re having. Thank you again for joining me Alex, and I hope you have an incredible school year!
You can connect with Alex Calderon through his Instagram or LinkedIn, and also make sure to check out his podcast “First Gen Teacher Lens”! You can also connect with me via my podcast The 3rd Lap Podcast and learn more about The Center for Black Educator Development here.