In 2001, as my masters program was coming to its end, the teachers in my cohort and I were busy looking for jobs. It was a strange situation—for months, we’d been learning together, supporting one another, working side-by-side—and then suddenly we were competing for the same positions. In our cohort of thirty teachers, ten of us were English certified and it didn’t take much to realize that there weren’t going to be enough positions for all of us.
I was lucky and received an offer after my first interview, and sixteen years later, I’m still at that same school. But I’ll never forget a conversation I had with one of my fellow teachers shortly after I’d accepted that offer.
It was April, unusually early to not only interview but also receive a position; most of the other teachers in our cohort were still waiting to see if positions would even be available at area schools. Jason, who was a chemistry teacher, congratulated me. But then he asked me this:
“Do you think, as a minority, you have an easier time getting a job?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer, but I took his question at face-value. “I’m not sure. Maybe.” Then after a moment, I asked, “What do you mean?”
I don’t remember his exact words, but I do remember the sense of unfairness in his voice. Even though he and I weren’t technically even competing for the same positions, his frustration at his own situation clearly bothered him.
I didn’t engage with him any further, but I wish I did. Because now as I look back, I see his question more clearly for what it was—or at least what it implied. By asking if I was being given opportunities based on my race, he implied that I might not otherwise have had those opportunities—that I was being given something I hadn’t exactly earned.
I wasn’t angry or upset with his question. And I had no problem with him, either. We’d worked side-by-side, at the same school working with the same kids during our student teaching. I’m not sure if my answer satisfied him. After all, how could I know for sure what role my race played in my job offer?
But at the time, it didn’t matter to me. And it didn’t matter to me because I knew I’d earned the position I was offered. Whether or not race played a role was irrelevant. I worked hard and did well. Teaching, I slowly came to realize, wasn’t just a job, but a calling. Whatever opportunities and job offers I received, I knew I earned them.
I find myself thinking about this exchange more often these days, especially amidst recent and continuing conversations about the importance of representation, diversity, and inclusion in schools. And I wonder how I would answer him now. I’m not sure, but I do think I’d make it clear that even if my race did factor into my job offer, I don’t know that there is anything wrong with that. It’s well documented, after all, that teachers of color are in short supply. Students of color make up more than half of the school-aged population while teachers of color make up only 17% of the workforce. Studies have consistently shown the positive effects that can happen when students of color have teachers who can reflect their own experiences. But more than that, having diverse teachers benefits all students; teachers are our first role models outside our families, and having teachers from all backgrounds and experiences is just one way that students can begin to connect with others different from themselves.
I don’t know what difference it’s made for my students to have had an English teacher who’s a first-generation Filipina American, a child of immigrants. Maybe it makes no difference. But I like to think that it does, especially as I read the news and worry about how less tolerant and less inclusive our society is becoming. It matters who the people are in that school together, in the faculty rooms and the classrooms. It matters who the people are who come together to work and study and learn and question.
Maybe who I am outside my classroom—where I come from, what experiences I’ve had—has made no difference to my students. But maybe, at least for some, it’s made some difference. Maybe. And that maybe matters.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.