“To be honest, Mr. Leblanc, you are the best teacher I’ve ever had.” I was taken aback when one of my sixth graders told me this merely two weeks into my first year of teaching. How could I, a new teacher with only two weeks in the classroom, be the best teacher this student had ever had? I soon realized that this student’s sentiments were not just a result of my lesson planning and organization skills, but also related to the fact that I looked like him.
After graduating from Stanford University with a major in Urban Studies and a concentration in Urban Education in 2009, I decided to pursue teaching through Teach For America in New York City. Teach For America is the national corps of outstanding recent college graduates of all academic majors and career interests who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools and become leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity. Now that I am teaching sixth grade English in the South Bronx, I understand more completely the academic achievement gap that persists along socioeconomic and racial lines. Seeing the deficiencies in my students’ educational experiences has highlighted for me that this is one of our country’s most pressing problems and an injustice we need to address immediately.
When I first arrived at my school, I was overwhelmed by my students’ questions, like, “Are you just a temporary teacher?” or ,“Are you doing this as part of college?” They could not understand how someone like me would want to be teaching them. Most of my students had never had a minority teacher before, let alone a male minority teacher. This is not unique to New York City and is a problem that is evident across the United States. With only two percent of teachers being black males in this country, it is no surprise that most students were shocked to see me in their school.
Growing up attending a school with a 100 percent minority population where in 10 years I only had one minority teacher who happened to be female, I completely understand where my students are coming from. I grew up without any role models who looked like me. I know what my students feel each day, and this helps me relate to them on a unique level.
As a result of my connection with my students, I have seen dramatic results in their work habits and performance in only three months. My class has gone from a 10 percent homework return rate to a rate of above 90 percent. I have watched my students go from reading one book in two months to now reading three books in one month. They are motivated, and my class is an active site of high expectations and hard work. I believe that my ability to relate to my students’ experiences as well as being a positive male influence in their lives has had a tremendous influence on their progress and accomplishments.
As a person of color and a Stanford graduate, you have the potential to be a powerful role model for students like my sixth graders. Not only will they have a profound impact on your life, but your presence and commitment can help guide them to academic and life success. I urge you to join me in the movement to end educational inequity.
Teach For America Corps Member ‘09