A key outcome for the Equitable Education portfolio is increasing workforce diversity in public K-12 education. We're always on the lookout for research and programs with the ability to grow our knowledge about this important equity issue. That's why an article from ED Weekly focused on building a pipeline of male Latino educators caught our attention. The article highlighted barriers that male Latino teacher candidates face when deciding to enter a teacher preparation program, challenges they may face while teaching within the education system and targeted programs designed to support their success. Latinx students make up about 25 percent of our student body nationwide, but only 2 percent of our teachers are male and Latino. In this blog series, inspired by creating a more reflective education workforce, I'll share recent interviews I've had the privilege to engage in focused on the unique experiences and perspectives of male Latino educators in Oregon. All the interviewees for the series are male Latinos, spanning the education profession but with commonality in their purpose and struggles. We hope by sharing their stories and their insights, we'll be able to draw attention to the great value male Latino educators bring to public education and help to spark conversation around the state toward recruitment and retention of this rare and impactful population of educators.
The first interviewee in our series is Marty Perez. Marty is an accomplished educator; he's been teaching for almost a decade at both the middle and high school levels. He is dedicated to the teaching profession, dual immersion programming and closing the achievement gap. He is vice chair of the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission representing secondary educators and serves on the Oregon Governor's Council on Educator Advancement, where his valuable insights helped to shape the council's November 2016 report. The son of a Mexican American immigrant and a Klamath tribal member, Marty has spent his life navigating a bicultural, bilingual family while striving to promote academic excellence through Latino and Native representation in our public schools. Currently he teaches high school Spanish in the Portland area. This interview has been edited.
What inspired you to enter teaching?
I was about ready to finish my undergraduate degree in 2008, and I was looking for my next chapter, my next step. I had spent all this time and energy into a four-year degree in Spanish literature. I got a minor in business, and then I got a second minor in economics. I was very vulnerable about my next stage in life, and thankfully, I heard about the Sapsikwala teacher training program at the University of Oregon. I decided, "Hey, I could be an educator. I could be a teacher, and I think that I could be a pretty successful Spanish teacher." That is exactly what I did. I applied for this federally funded program and received a letter confirming my admittance.
That was when all the chips were in for me to become an educator. I decided that if somebody was going to pay for me to be a teacher, if somebody was going to invest in me for a certain mission or a vision, then I'm going to try to hold true to their investment for as long as I possibly can. I was committed to teaching in schools with Native American populations. I've taught in Alaska, California and Oregon.
Another moment when I knew education could be a calling was when I was a sophomore and junior in high school. I used to tutor fifth- and sixth-graders through the 21st Century Community Learning Program, which used federal money to provide supplemental resources to students in the areas of math and English, and I enjoyed it. It was maybe one and a half, two hours after school. I was making enough money in that moment to pay for my car payments and some gas, and I felt like it gave me this experience that wasn't too formal. I was able to interact with kids on a different level, that wasn't this teacher level. I felt like I had ways to communicate the tricks to navigate certain benchmarks, or content standards, or whatever the function may be; I felt that I was able to convey a message that it was attainable.
It sounds like when you decided to pursue teaching, it was in a supportive program.
You know, I really read through the Sapsikwala mission statement and materials; my experience echoed 90 percent of the statistics that were stated. Growing up in small rural town, Tulelake, Calif., I had zero educators of color. To reference the Ed Weekly article, I could really relate to the teacher, Angel Magana, making a connection with other people of color in the school building who are not in an educator role. My mom was an instructional assistant, or a teacher's assistant, who worked in the school system: In my eyes, the roles that people of color are carrying out in schools, day-in and day-out, are just as important as a teacher, principal or politician. Without them and their work, the school environment would not function.
In the graduate program, we were a cohort within a cohort. Thankfully I had that experience. I just felt like when I was in the Sapsikwala program, there were some twenty-odd Native American educators who were pursuing the same dream, trying to envision the same mission that was set before them. That support definitely led to my success.
Once you became a teacher, how did you find support?
As a first-time Spanish teacher, I was living in Anchorage, 3,000 miles away from everything I was familiar with. I quickly became friends with the school secretary, the custodial staff, the people who were holding down the "service" positions within the school. That made my time there bearable. I also was a very gregarious person; I reached across different departments and found friends in the math, special education and English departments. I tried to make sure that everybody knew that I was here to not only be an educator, but also to make those connections that would ultimately make me feel like I belonged in the building. They did an excellent job at Mears Middle School in Anchorage.
But if we were to analyze the teaching staff by race, there were only a handful of educators of color among close to 80 staff members. Most of the them were working in the world language department and or in the Indian education program.
I love that example about how you just built community so you could stay.
And I had to.
You're from a culturally and racially blended family. How has that affected your approach to teaching?
My dad worked in agriculture for 30 years. My mom, the only one of eight in a Native American household who graduated high school, has been extremely impactful. They've both affected my approach to teaching because I feel like their stories are often left out of text books; they're left out of examples; they're left out of conveying a message that the work that they put in to the system is ultimately as important as any other profession out there. I will often reference my dad and my mom when I teach and when I bring up certain concepts, especially talking about strict parents or Latino experiences. My students truly understand and love and have validation from that perspective.
Your mom is from a Native tribe and your dad was born in Mexico?
My mom, myself and my daughter, we are from the Klamath tribes. We're of the Modoc Tribe, and my dad is from a little, little place in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. His town is called El Mezquite Grande. He came when he was 12 or 13 to the United States and has been working in agriculture ever since. He taught himself how to be a mechanic. He can barely read or write but he can tear apart huge heavy machinery and diagnose a problem and fix it. He is self taught, which is incredible. Such resilient genes reside in myself and my daughter, but don't ask me to fix anything. I will save that for the experts.
What's kept you in education all these years? What makes you hopeful for Oregon's education system?
You know, I will say, I always think back to the Sapsikwala program and their vision and mission of getting indigenous educators inside classrooms to teach indigenous students and other students of color in a way that is missed by the majority of the teaching field. I wanted to stay true to the mission, and they invested a lot of money in me to become an educator. Even though they only asked us to make our repayment for a few years after we received our degree and our license, I sometimes have a hard time letting go because somebody has invested money in me. I was given an opportunity, and I feel grateful for it.
I also feel like what keeps me in my current position is my department. I couldn't ask for a better department, and when we spoke about my community that I formed in Alaska, I've been creating this community in every position since. I feel like I have a community at my high school. I don't have to explain myself when I am upset regarding something I just heard or some micro-aggression that I just had to deal with. They get it, and they don't only get it in real life, but they're able to convey that "it" in a different language as well. I think it's remarkable to know that the community, the department, has helped me stay in a difficult environment.
What originally hooked me at my school has kept me there: the students. I saw a lot of students of color who were poor on the socioeconomic scale, but they were rich in knowledge and they were so wealthy with grit and they wanted so much for their family. They wanted so much for their community, and they were determined to get it. Knowing that I helped them keeps me hopeful and fuels my desire to continue in the teaching profession.
How do you help your students navigate experiences that they have, that they feel are discriminatory or they feel are microaggressions?
I've had a lot of students come up to me, and they say, "I see you as that angry uncle who will go to bat for us. I see you as that strict father that we know, if we step out of line, we will get reprimanded or get corrected in some way." I will put my title on the line when it comes to helping students sort and navigate a system that was not designed for them.
I have many students bringing problems and dilemmas to me that are often never repeated to anybody else, other than maybe their parents. They share with me and I bring it to my administrator's attention, and I think it's important for them to know that they have an advocate, an ally and a teacher on their side. I won't be the one to tell them, "I think you're stepping in the wrong direction or you're overreacting to something that wasn't meant to be big." I will always try to validate their perspective and their concern. I try to give them the tools that they need to be successful, in order to graduate on time.
We have big gaps, right? We have made some progress but the achievement gaps between students of color, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, they've remained consistent. We've never reached a point where we've had a representative teacher workforce that matches the students. But we do know that where there are highly skilled representative teachers, there is positive achievement for students of color. We do know representation and culturally responsive teaching works, we just haven't gotten there yet.
I think that a lot of what is achieved by having students taught by educators of color is often something that is hard to measure. How do we measure that positive cultural shift? How do we measure the ability to reflect on your own person, see a teacher leader who looks like you, can understand your struggles and because of this, know that you're not confined to entry-level positions?
I feel like I would have been content working alongside my dad in the fields and his message to us always was, "Don't ever feel like this work that I do is below you." It is something that is needed, and my dad is probably one of my biggest fans.
I remember when I graduated with my bachelor's degree, he used to tell everybody, "Oh my son's a licenciado." Licenciado has a double meaning: It could be a lawyer or just somebody who has a formal degree. It was almost like that was his entry point into many conversations. "My son is a licenciado; he has this degree." I carry my dad and his story with me, on my shoulders, and I guess he vicariously tells his story through me.
It's beautiful to know that there are so many stories out there in this world that have never been told, they've never been taught in a public forum. It is disheartening and it's sad that classrooms have excluded the stories, cultures and histories of so many of our students. I think all kids, regardless of color, deserve to hear these diverse stories and they also deserve to be taught by a qualified individual who loves their job, a teacher who's passionate about kids and what they bring to the table.
Thank you for doing what you do, Marty!