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 Cesar (CJ) Cortorreal, who was born and raised in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He’s compassionate and empathetic, enjoys the company of others, and is always excited to learn. He is also a first-generation college graduate, and a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. In his spare time, he is learning the ukulele, enjoys catching up with friends/family, or taking the day to catch up on sleep!
Malcolm (MD): CJ I’m so excited to have this conversation with you and to get your perspective on how we can better support educators of color!
CJ Cortorreal (CJ): Thanks for having me Mal!
MD: First let’s talk about some of the reasons why young people of color aren’t becoming educators. You said school culture, can you elaborate on that?
CJ: My answer comes from being a student in Philly schools. I had particular teachers that saw me as a smart Black guy and they made sure I was going in the right direction. As a student I’d look at other students and wonder why they acted the way they did. As an educator I can see why those things happen and why they’re angry. There are a lot of teachers that don’t even try to understand why our students are so angry.
MD: For sure. Can you talk about that lack of empathy and how it affects culture?
CJ: It creates a culture where students don’t feel safe and welcomed in school. As an educator I want to create a culture where they want to show up. The kids that bullied me in high school are the ones that love me now. I can be authentically me and be there for them.
MD: I love that! Yeah, creating an inviting and affirming culture for our young people is imperative to do this work well. It’s also important when we’re trying to encourage young people of color to become educators. If they had a traumatizing K-12 experience it decreases the likelihood that they see education as a viable pathway forward for themselves.
MD: So let’s pivot now and discuss what is preventing educators of color from staying in education. You said work/life balance, can you tell me more?
CJ: This is my second year teaching, and I plan on going back to the district but there are other opportunities out there. Urban school districts after Covid, it’s been a lot. I’m a Learning Support Teacher and I’ve had to teach a class but also deal with my Special Education load. I had an administrator tell me we’re just chess pieces on her chess board and she’ll move us where she wants.
MD: How did you feel after she told you that?
CJ: Special Education is legal and it’s about compliance. I’m a human and I found I couldn’t do my casework because of teaching expectations. You’re trying to make sure your students are learning what they need to learn while also addressing state tests. We have to make sure educators are supported as well as the students. Work/life balance is important, and it can be the reason why good educators of color decide to walk away.
MD: Many of the educators I’ve spoken to so far have mentioned the importance of representation in the K-12 experience for young people of color. You didn’t have many educators of color as a student, how did that affect your sense of culture and pride as a person of color?
CJ: I think the reason why a large number of students of color feel imposter syndrome is due to the lack of representation growing up. They didn’t see there were opportunities in front of them because they didn’t see people that looked like them.
MD: That’s a valid point about imposter syndrome. I’ve never really thought about it like that.
CJ: I was awarded a Fullbright scholarship and it still hasn’t hit me. There’s not a lot of Black people who are winning Fullbrights so it’s hard to envision being awarded such a competitive scholarship when there’s still issues of access for other people of color.
MD: So did a lack of educators of color in your life make you want to become an educator?
CJ: It made me want to become an educator and stay in education and see schools with more teachers of color and diversity, equity, and inclusion. My thought process of being an educator went on and off but I knew I’d be in education. I was in a non-profit in youth development and socioemotional learning, and while I enjoyed that work I knew I had to get into teaching.
MD: And I’m so happy that you did! Your students, their families, and your colleagues will be fortunate to have you in their corner. I’m excited to see you continue to grow and evolve as an educator, and I know when we check in down the road you’ll be making a massive impact wherever you choose to serve. Thank you again for your time and for your candid responses!
You can connect with CJ Cortorreal through his Instagram or LinkedIn, and also make sure to check out his website Ces-ing The Moment! You can also connect with me via my podcast The 3rd Lap Podcast and learn more about The Center for Black Educator Development here.