By | Maria Sanchez
I spent the majority of my K-12 education in a small mountain town school district called Eagle County School District. Growing up there, I can’t say there were many opportunities for me to explore my identity, culture, or background. Much of the work we did was geared towards the same goal Denver Public Schools students are being pushed towards: college. The idea was to get a college diploma, and make lots of money. Being a child of immigrants, I was sold on this dream for a long time. I got to both witness and experience the tough work my parents did for a living. They constantly reminded my siblings and I that if we went to college and worked hard in school, we wouldn’t have to work as hard as they did. Now, after having finished my 5th year of teaching in Commerce City, I think I have found the balance between what I was pushed towards, and what actually worked for me. Yes, I went to college and got an English degree, but I didn’t use it to seek out high-paying jobs. Instead, I became a teacher, which may not be the most lucrative job, but it helped me achieve what I consider to be success.
The issues brought up in this article are still rampant in the metro area of Denver, not just in DPS. At the beginning of each year, I have my students write what they want to be when they grow up on a paper star. We then hang those stars up around the room, and I try to use them as reminders throughout the year of why we practice Language Arts skills. Their ideas of success always include a beautiful range of careers like mechanics, video game streamers, nail technicians, veterinarians, brain surgeons, CEO’s, and my personal favorite, teachers. I’ve had many conversations with students about how there is no “correct” path after high school. It’s all dependent on what they wish to do, and how they want to achieve that. Some 7th graders love to hear that they don’t have to go to college, and some are already planning on where they want to go. I think as educators, we should be able to look at both students and tell them that both of those plans (and everything in between), are perfectly acceptable.
Unfortunately, we don’t hear those perspectives from educators. Many colleagues are not only convinced that college is the way to go, but that to achieve that, students must code-switch, learn how to navigate worlds that are not always welcoming to them, and in essence change a major part of who they are. In my experience, we constantly ask our students to disavow ways they express themselves in order to please someone else. I’ve heard everything from colleagues asking me why “my people are so loud” to comments like, “we’re doing them a disservice if they don’t learn proper english.” Both of these comments are rooted in racist ideals that only hold our students back from showing their full potential. As an educator, it is difficult to correct students’ ways of speaking because there is no one “correct” way to speak. Rather, we should be focusing on helping students develop critical thinking skills so they can learn how to navigate any path they choose.
At a district level, I would love to see real advocacy and research done to help our students succeed in ways that are authentic to them. Instead of creating a mold and trying to fit every student into it, it would be a beautiful thing to have students constantly creating and changing those molds. One of the easiest things district leaders can do, that they often don’t seem to think of, is to talk to students. We need to hear from them about what type of classes they’re interested in, what supports they need, and what their goals are. What’s really unfair to students is pushing them to a four-year college, only to have them get there and realize that it’s not for them. When we start listening to our students, only then will we be able to say that we are advocating for student success.
Maria Sanchez grew up in Gypsum, Colorado, a small mountain town west of Vail. She moved to Denver to attend CU Denver and has been here ever since. The daughter of two Mexican immigrants, she decided early on in college that education was her future and became a teacher. She has been teaching in Commerce City for the past five years, and is working to advocate for biliteracy access in her district. As a natural connection to her work, she is also a part of the Right2Learn collective, a research group that focuses on educational dignity and is currently working on a campaign to amend the state’s education clause. In her free time, she loves to spend time with her husband and their dogs.