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 Laura Burgos, who is an experienced education leader within the public, nonprofit, and private education sectors. She focuses on cultivating learning communities to enhance adult leadership in service of students, and implementing strategic initiatives to promote innovation in K12 education systems.
Laura served as a mentor for me early in my career, and has helped me every step of the way since then. She is an empathetic and understanding leader that is all about getting the results we need for our young people and the educators that serve them.
Malcolm (MD): Laura!! I’m so excited to have this conversation with you and to get your perspective on how we can make education more appealing as a long term option for people of color.
Laura Burgos (LB): Thanks so much for having me!
MD: To start our conversation off, I’d love to hear more about why you believe young people of color aren’t becoming teachers at a higher rate. What do you believe is the core issue?
LB: A negative K-12 experience definitely contributes to that. I would say for those of us that grew up in underserved neighborhoods and went to underserved schools we bring years of trauma. I had more negative than positive experiences with teachers and staff that weren’t from our community and that weren’t invested in my learning. They would be reading papers while we made beats on the desk. They brought a lack of respect to the profession and we didn’t always feel the love, compassion, or investment. I didn’t think about a career in education, I had some positive experiences but overall for me school wasn’t a great place to be.
MD: I talk all the time about the trauma that our students in urban schools face, and how that plays a direct role in them not wanting to turn around and teach. I really wish the conversation about trauma was had more openly and honestly.
LB: I attended 3 different high schools and I had a lot of adverse experiences, I wasn’t challenged and my skills weren’t acknowledged. I remember I had to write a paper about a moment in history and I wanted to write about the history of hip hop and the teacher said it wasn’t a credible art form. I wanted to prove her wrong and I went to as many libraries as I could to find books and primary sources about hip hop and showed her its history that’s documented. Those moments when you’re demoralized and not having your identity affirmed, we carry that baggage forward in life and I felt teachers didn’t like us and didn’t want us to learn.
MD: Being that you had such a tough experience as a student, what ultimately led you to becoming an educator?
LB: My first career goal, I was into music and hip hop culture, I wanted to be a DJ and writer. Then I thought about social work, that was because of the trauma that came out of my K-12 experience. I was trying to help and lift our people up, as a young person I knew what social workers did and I knew that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to give back and pull others up with me.
MD: I remember when we first met, you took me on a tour of the school where I was going to work and you told me about your previous life as a DJ and aspiring emcee. This was right after I decided to no longer rap and become an educator. I knew I was on the right path after that conversation (laughs).
LB: (Laughs) Yeah I remember that conversation. When I was starting out in my career, I wanted to figure out how we could be better, be healthy, and have more access to the resources we need to break the cycle of poverty and do better collectively. As Dead Prez says in “They Schools” the schools are not teaching us how to solve our own problems. I’m not learning how to manage finances, how to get my family to interact better with each other, how to build wealth, it was an irrelevant experience overall. So I knew it was important for me to be in this space to build out what I knew schooling could and should be.
MD: “They Schools” is such a great song, and yeah it really speaks to the experiences of so many of our young students of color going to school in underserved communities. You’ve been in education for a while now and you’ve worked in different states around the country. As far as what is preventing educators of color from staying in education, you said salary, can you tell me more?
LB: For those of us that are first generation everything (college, career, etc) your struggle is different and your responsibility is to you and your extended family. I remember coming into teaching in 2001 my salary was around $40,000 and I was living check to check and I couldn’t afford to live in a safe neighborhood. I was trying to figure out how to help my mother and my sister just became a young mother so I’m teaching after school, Saturday school, every opportunity I could.
MD: Wow, so you were stretched really thin just to make sure that you could take care of yourself and those in your circle.
LB: I was hustling to do all that I could to better position myself and make sure everyone was taking care of. Not to mention paying back student loans, or those that have poor credit entering their adult years, it’s really tough. The pay many times is just enough to make ends meet but not really to do much more.
MD: To backtrack a little, you did not have many educators of color as a student, how did that affect your sense of culture and pride as a person of color?
LB: There’s so much of my identity I had to learn as an adult and I was left to my own resources. There was no one teaching me the colonial relationship between the US and Puerto Rico, I wasn’t learning that. There were so many missed opportunities, you get your Black history month and multicultural month but there’s a broken link. It’s almost like the teachers in front of us came from a different world/life/zip code.
MD: My experience was very similar. Most of what I learned about the Black Panther Party or the revolutionaries of the 60’s and throughout history I either learned from my parents or from books that I sought out for my own knowledge. Which is why culturally relevant pedagogy and curriculum is imperative for our young people.
Laura, this was such a great conversation and I appreciate your transparency in regards to your experience as a student and how we as educators can make this process better for our young people.
You can connect with Laura Burgos through her LinkedIn, and also make sure to check out her personal essay “And There Was No Village” which was donated to DC Public Library’s “Archive This Moment DC” collection. You can also connect with me via my podcast The 3rd Lap Podcast and learn more about The Center for Black Educator Development here.