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CHICAGO — In high school, when Fernando Reyes started thinking about the type of career he wanted, he thought about becoming a pyrotechnician.

“I loved working with demolition, explosives, anything that involved that type of chemistry,” he told Latino USA. But when Reyes started taking chemistry classes, he discovered that while he was passionate about seeing chemistry in motion, he wasn’t passionate about all the paperwork.

Reyes eventually contemplated which jobs he could do for 25 to 30 years. As someone who enjoyed reading, he decided on teaching.

“I believe that you can tell a lot about a person by observing their writing and listening to what they have to say. So I figured two things,” Reyes recalled. “One: I’m going to enjoy reading students’ papers and listening to their speeches—and I get paid to do it. Two: As a Latino who excelled in English, I know it makes a big difference in this country. It’s one way I can help out my community by helping it advance.”

Now 25, Reyes will begin his first full year as a teacher this fall in a public high school in the Pilsen neighborhood, a historically immigrant community struggling with gentrification in Chicago. The high school where he’ll teach enrolls over 1,700 students—95% who are Latino and 97% who are low-income.

Reyes took the traditional teacher-preparation route. He was accepted at Northeastern Illinois University, enrolled in the program for secondary teachers of English, completed student teaching and passed state exams, joining a U.S. teaching force that struggles to recruit and retain Latino male teachers. Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, Latino teachers represent only 7.8% of the teaching workforce and Latino male teachers represent a mere 2%.

The Diversity Problem

Many believe the teaching force should reflect the demographics of students in schools, but they don’t. As the teaching force grows to be mostly white and mostly female, many school districts are still struggling to diversify their teaching staff.

While the Latino high-school dropout rate has dropped over the last decade, it remains higher than other groups at 12% (blacks 7%, whites 5%, and Asians 1%), according to the Pew Research Center. A study by UCLA’s Black Male Institute of high-achieving black and Latino males in Los Angeles County found that a key factor is these young men’s success was supportive teachers or role models.

So could recruiting more male Latino teachers improve Latino students’ educational experiences?

One Effort to Recruit Male Latino Teachers

In 2014, The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) launched an initiative to recruit male black and Latino teachers. New Jersey’s William Paterson University, whose student population is 25% Latino, became one of the 10 institutions AACTE invited to join this effort. The university created the Teach-Inspire-Educate Program, which matches black and Latino male teacher candidates with black and Latino male faculty mentors.

However, according to Dr. David Fuentes, a professor in the Department of Early Childhood & Elementary Education at William  Paterson and program mentor, there are still questions about the recruitment process.

“The idea of a 19-year-old young person being able to take on the responsibilities of a teacher is flawed,” Fuentes told Latino USA. “It leads to very few groups of people who fit this mold of what we think a teacher should be. Unfortunately, now that we look at the demographics, we see a very stark reality: 2% of teachers in the work force are black or Latino men.”

Dr. David Fuentes (Photo via William Paterson University)

During the first year of the project, Fuentes and his colleagues found that 78 black and Latino male undergraduates expressed interest in becoming a teacher. But Fuentes and his colleagues didn’t see them in classes.

They discovered that the entrance requirements to enter the teacher-preparation program were keeping students from getting into their education classes. For some, it was the 3.0 GPA that New Jersey imposes. For others, it was not passing a certification test. Others faced troubles with the criminal background check. Also, some coursework needed to be taken in a correct sequence.

Their conclusion? Students needed advising at earlier stages that they were never getting previously. William Paterson’s mentorship program now meets with Boy Scouts and goes into high schools to mentor new teachers and offer college classes to encourage minority students to pursue teaching.

“Many academics are so embroiled with color blindness, that they don’t feel comfortable identifying groups.” Fuentes said. “That’s something we need to be able to discuss because we have groups of people who are being impacted differently.”

How People React to Latino Males Pursuing a Teaching Career

When Fernando Reyes decided to become a teacher, he noted that people outside of his family (which includes many teachers) made him sound like something rare.

“They said, ‘Oh, there’s not a lot of male Latino English teachers. They’re very rare in the field overall.’ It was a mixed sentiment: sounding unique and sounding like a commodity,” Reyes explained.

Another new Chicago teacher Juan Pablo Esquivel, 25, mentioned how many telenovelas perpetuate the idea of teaching as a female profession. Any teacher who appears is usually female, and their responsibilities are not presented realistically.

Juan Pablo Esquivel (Photo by Ray Salazar for Latino USA)

“They’re sitting at a desk collecting papers,” Esquivel told Latino USA. “They simplify it like if it’s a walk in the park.”

Esquivel became a teacher because when he was growing up on the north side of Chicago, he noticed the lack of male role models. He decided in 8th grade that he wanted to be the role model for other Latino male students that he did not have while growing up.

In addition to life experiences, Esquivel, who earned his teaching certificate through an alternative teacher-certification program, said he was better prepared because of the three summers he spent working with youth in his neighborhood. Then he spent a year in a program tutoring 9th graders. He’s experienced how some male students react differently to him.

For instance, one student who Esquivel worked with had a master car key and was stealing cars from the high school community. After the student was arrested and came back to school, Esquivel talked to him. The student shared problems at home and how stealing cars was like a game for him. He wasn’t thinking about the consequences. The bond Esquivel established with the student helped build enough trust for the student to be open and honest.

Advantages to Being a Male Latino Teacher?

“I do feel like being a male is an advantage in education,” said Aaron Jaramillo, 31, a Spanish teacher in Chicago with three years of experience. “I’ve seen some of my female counterparts get disrespected. But as soon as I say something to correct them, students say, ‘O.K. I’m sorry.’ I ask them why they can’t act like that for her. [They say,] ‘I don’t know.’”

Aaron Jaramillo (Photo by Ray Salazar for Latino USA)

In an article about the differences between male and female teachers, Carolina Gonzalez, a Chicago public high school English teacher said, “It’s rare for a male teacher to have conversations with students about what it is that he wears, what his body looks like, what his hair looks like.” Gonzalez heard a lot of that her first years as a teacher.

Even though her priority was to have students discuss social issues, writing, and literature, Gonzalez explained that many of the conversations that surrounded her were about how she looked.

“I was being evaluated [by students] on my physical appearance as opposed to what I did in the classroom,” she said.

Jaramillo does recognize that “people equate a male presence with authority.” But he still struggles, not unlike other teachers, with classroom management: like the time a disruptive student threw a desk in class because he didn’t want to leave. That’s the hardest part of the job —according to Jaramillo— the disrespect teachers face.

Reyes also sees sides of students that other teachers do not see. One student, who Reyes knew belonged to a gang, would sit quietly in his class.

“He never did his work no matter how many times I tried, but he would not talk. He wouldn’t say anything,” Reyes said. “If I asked him something then he would quietly respond. I was surprised to find out that that guy would chew out and swear at the female teachers.”

Both Jaramillo and Reyes believe an important part of building strong professional relationships with students includes showing a presence in the school. Both teachers attend events after school and talk to students about topics that interest them.

For Esquivel, seeing students around the neighborhood on the weekend when he goes to mass or a local ice cream shop reminds him about the responsibility he has.

Just Being a Good Teacher

But what about being a good teacher?

Jaramillo said the key is being able to control the class and cater the lesson to everybody.

“But that’s not always an easy job. It’s not always possible.” he explained. “A good teacher strives to make the lesson better. If it didn’t work second period, what can I do third period to make it better? What can I do fifth period to make it better?”

A teacher who is not doing a good job would just the opposite, Jaramillo continued, referring to that teacher who just says “‘Here’s your work. If you have any questions, look in your book.’ They just keep on in their ways instead of trying to adapt to the student body.”

While hiring more male Latino teachers might help, the Chicago teachers who Latino USA talked with all recognize that having more male Latino teachers will not fix every problem affecting youth. Reyes said that a great deal also depends on “the strong connection between administration and the faculty and the community.”

Nonetheless, for all these three novice male Latino teachers —Fernando Reyes, Juan Pablo Esquivel, Aaron Jaramillo—
teaching is a career they envision for the long term.

Reyes didn’t go into pyrotechnics. But as a teacher, he said he does work to change some of the misconceptions that exist about Latino males in his school community.

“You’ve grown up in a household where you’re not going to ask for help and you’re going to take charge and deal with everything. So you observe what the norm is that’s set in the Latino community,” Reyes explained. “A big thing that I try to expose to young Latinos is being able to say ‘I’m wrong’ or ‘I do need help.’ ‘How can I receive that help?’”