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Going through public schools in a small Massachusetts city, I had some great teachers. Astoundingly, none of them resembled me, a Black boy in America.
I recently graduated from college, and before starting a full-time job this fall, I spent the summer mentoring middle schoolers in New Bedford, another small Massachusetts city near where I grew up.
I found not much had changed when it comes to teachers of color — there still aren’t that many of them.
I began to wonder: Why don’t more of the teachers look like the kids? I had flashbacks to what it was like to be a student who could not identify with the adults at school. In hindsight, I wanted to be able to identify with authority at school because it would have given me hope about my professional future.
There’s been a lot of talk about how teachers need to better reflect the student bodies they teach. When I look around, it doesn’t seem as if we’ve made much progress. I believe this to be a major problem in our education system; we need more Black teachers.
I majored in economics as an undergraduate. After I graduated, I had a few months before my job in the banking industry started up, and a friend of mine suggested I do a summer school mentoring program because she knew I was also interested in education as a possible career.
I helped fill in wherever the program needed me, but my favorite part was working one-on-one with the kids. One boy I met was an eighth grader who’d had trouble during the regular school year. He had a reputation as a kid who didn’t cooperate, didn’t care, didn’t want to learn and maybe was getting involved with gangs.
What I found when we worked together was a bright kid who wanted to learn. He was never any trouble. It made me sad when he said he wished I could come back in the fall, because no one had told him he was a smart kid before.
Following that conversation, he told me he wished I was his teacher because I was Black. He wanted a Black man for a teacher, a wish I’d asked the tooth fairy for one too many times as a child.
I remember saying the same things with my friends when we were in middle and high school. We weren’t seeing people like us among our teachers, so we felt like we did not belong. School at times felt like it just was not a place meant for us.
He wanted a Black man for a teacher, a wish I’d asked the tooth fairy for one too many times as a child.
I was lucky because my parents pushed education and training. When I was 10, we had emigrated from Cabo Verde to find more opportunities. Before I came to the United States, I’d had role models in my school and all around me who shared experiences like mine.
After our move, except for my family, I no longer had people that looked like me in places of authority. I noticed changes in my behavior. I started caring less about school and doubted my academic abilities.
My family’s support and expectations helped me focus so I could graduate high school and then college. But I had a lot of friends who did not have that encouragement in their own families or in the school system.
They didn’t see how putting themselves into their schoolwork would help them, and they never even considered higher education programs as options.
Yet, that’s what success is all about: options. And seeing yourself in those options.
Working as a mentor, I saw that we need more teachers of color to inspire and communicate with students and their families. The school I was at was filled with students who spoke Spanish or Portuguese as a first language. Their parents in many cases did not speak English well yet, and I was the only person on staff who could speak those languages.
During the summer, mentors from the area would get together for informational sessions. We learned that when students of color have adult mentors of diverse backgrounds, the kids get themselves to school more often and have a better chance at graduating and staying out of trouble. Half of the battle is showing up; if these kids show up, I know they can lead successful lives.
Students I worked with told me they were going to school only because I was there, and that my presence made them feel welcome.
I also discovered something about myself: I really like teaching. It made me think I’d like to find a way someday to combine my economics degree with education. Even if I don’t go on to become a teacher, I know I will stay involved with young people, especially young people of color, whether that be as a teacher, coach or other kind of mentor.
I’ve decided to actively put myself in places where I will influence kids, especially those that look like they could be my cousins. I wish more people like me would invest in education, because children need to see more people that look like them as role models in school.
Ricardo Da Fonseca is a recent graduate of Providence College. He spent the summer as a mentor for C4C, a program designed to place college-age students of diverse backgrounds in under-resourced schools and introduce them to education careers.