MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears to another diversity issue, this time in education. Earlier this month we brought you the story of Amanda Machado. She wrote a piece for The Atlantic magazine called, "Why Teachers of Color Quit." And it addressed something you might have seen something in your own school where you might have gotten the feeling that there is more turnover among teachers of color. Machado wrote about her own experience of teaching two years of high school English to students who, like herself, were mostly Latino. She said she thought that shared background would make her job easier, but instead she said it made it harder.
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AMANDA MACHADO: Coming from the background that I did, I couldn't keep race out of my head. I was always thinking about the very different racial and socioeconomic realities that our students have. And I felt a responsibility to them, which intensified the pressure and it made me hypersensitive to anything that didn't relate to their backgrounds.
MARTIN: But now we're going to hear another perspective. Teacher Victoria Kunzmann has a very different view. She is a high school English teacher in Arizona. She wrote about her experience on her blog My Redacted Journey. And she is with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
VICTORIA KUNZMANN: Good to be here.
MARTIN: First of all, did Amanda's piece push your buttons?
KUNZMANN: It really did. Yes, it really did.
MARTIN: Which ones?
KUNZMANN: Well, about the fact that she had a similar background, I think that and the fact that she really knew what she was talking about after two years of teaching English.
MARTIN: So you are also of Latino heritage?
KUNZMANN: Yes, I am.
MARTIN: Did you grow up wanting to be a teacher?
KUNZMANN: Oh, absolutely. I've always wanted to be a teacher from day one, yes.
KUNZMANN: Because I'm good at it. I don't know what else to say about that. People ask me all the time but - I know how to get people to learn, I suppose is the best way to put that.
MARTIN: In fact, you say in your piece, I became a teacher because I knew I would be good at it, and I am.
MARTIN: And more to your point, just as Amanda wrote in her piece, I grew up in a lower to middle-income family with non-immigrant parents, although generations back my ancestors did come from Mexico. And, you know, you talk about the fact that - didn't grow up with a lot of privilege, a lot of money, but you thought you'd want to do this and you have made in your career. So let's kind of talk about her argument. She cited three reasons.
One is she cited her colleagues saying, perhaps unintentionally, disparaging things about the students that they were teaching and about their neighborhoods. Like, when she mentioned that she lived in the same neighborhood a lot of her students come from, some of her peers would say things like, you live there? And also not wanting to learn more about the kids' backgrounds. So there was that. There was the - just the issue that she cites here, saying that she found it really hard to disengage. Did you feel any of those things? And how do you deal with those things?
KUNZMANN: Colleagues and other people who know where you work, they do have a tendency to look down upon that and you do wonder how they can teach these children if they do have that kind of attitude. So that part I do agree with her. However, I do say in my essay if I were to quit, my students would have no one else to look like them, to be the same as them.
MARTIN: Why else do you stay in teaching?
KUNZMANN: I know that I'm making an effort, I know I'm making a difference. I really do. I've been in teaching 13 years and I'm just now seeing the fruits of my labor. Students I taught 13 years ago have now come back and are getting in touch with me. And the computer is a wonderful thing because they tell me the effect I had. And not that I taught them nouns and verbs, but that I really taught them how to be a good person in the community - I'm just now seeing that.
MARTIN: Amanda Machado also wrote that - and this is something, you know, I do have to ask you about - she said that part of it was - the reason she quit was that teaching is not as prestigious as it once was. I mean, there was a time in the U.S. when teaching was one of the only professions that was certainly open to women and open to educated people of color. Now that that has changed, she said that, you know, she kind of felt that she owed it to all the people who sacrificed for her education to do something more prestigious. Now I can see where that would be kind of an ouch. But...
KUNZMANN: Oh, yes. Thank you. Yes.
MARTIN: But I have to ask, does any of that resonate with you?
KUNZMANN: Absolutely not. That's probably the part that really got me really - my fingers flying. The prestige I suppose that I see in this is from the children, is from my student. They think it's prestigious. I know that we should teach our children and our students to shoot for the moon, but in reality them shooting for the moon is just simply graduating high school sometimes. As far as prestige, I didn't go into this to be prestigious and I certainly didn't go into this to show everybody else how great I am. I really do have my heart in the right place. I went into this to make a better world. And I know as scripted as that might sound, I do want to create a better world and I think this is the way to do it.
MARTIN: Do you think that part of the issue here that - in fact you allude to this in your piece, which is quite polite but does have a bit of a cutting tone, in the sense that I think you kind of let your irritation come through a little bit, where you say that lack of prestige, low financial rewards, teaching is demoralizing - let me tell you something lady, your values are twisted. I have an abundance of prestige, but I seriously doubt it is the prestige you are looking for.
I have the respect and admiration of my students, present and former. They see my being their teacher as important and they certainly consider it an achievement. And as for low financial rewards, I went into this profession with a clear understanding that I would never become rich teaching. However, I raised four children on my teaching salary. So do you think - I wonder if part of the issue here is that - is expectations. It's that - do you think part of the issue is that kids going to programs like Teach For America have kind of out-sighted expectations?
KUNZMANN: I think one of the things that groups like Teach For America bank on is the fact that they're wide-eyed perhaps and they want to go out and save the world. Well, I want to go out and save the world too, but I'm a little bit more realistic in that I think that any job, be it teaching or broadcasting for crying out loud, you need to get more of an education about what you're doing then five weeks of summer training. It's just - it's not fair. And I think that it's misleading that people think that teaching is such a snap, such an easy thing to do and five weeks of summer training is going to make anybody a teacher.
MARTIN: You've been teaching for 13 years now?
KUNZMANN: Yes, I have.
MARTIN: Did you ever think of quitting yourself?
KUNZMANN: You know, right now.
MARTIN: Really, right now?
KUNZMANN: Actually this is my second career. I didn't obtain my degree until I was 36. So I was older, obviously, when I went into the field. And so I knew what I was getting into. I do have to say, had I gone into teaching in my 20s, I would never have made it. It is a tough gig and I've worked in some tough places. I've worked in a boys' prison so - and that still didn't make me quit. So I don't see me quitting anytime soon, though.
MARTIN: But you did say you thought sometimes about quitting now. Why is that? Do you mind if I ask, why?
KUNZMANN: Because right now, the way education in America is headed right now is something that really tears at my heart. I don't think teachers are valued. I know we're not valued. And we're talking about diversity here - there's diversity all across the United States. What works for kids in Tampa is not going to work for the kids in Tempe. And teachers who are in the trenches know this, but unfortunately the people that are in charge of education today, they don't know it and they don't agree with it.
MARTIN: The statistics that - you know, Amanda talked about her personal experience, but she did cite some data that suggests there is slightly higher turnover among teachers of color. And I just wondered if you had a sense about why that might be?
KUNZMANN: I want to know where these teachers of color reside. I'm not killing you because I see a lot of African-American teachers. I've worked with a lot of African-American teachers. But as far as the Hispanic community, the Latinas and Latinos, they're not out - I don't see them. I taught at a school that was 80 percent Hispanic and I was the only Hispanic teacher on staff. I came into this field thinking how can I get more Hispanics to the classroom to teach. And so the fact that the turnover rate is so high is very, very disparaging.
MARTIN: Do you have any thoughts that you would want to share - I mean, obviously, you have many thoughts. But for - if there are people listening to our conversation - this is a question I asked Amanda Machado - which is what advice from your vantage point would you give to policy makers who are looking at this and who believe that diversity is important in the teaching profession and also retention is important in the teaching profession, is there some advice that you would give them about how we can do better?
KUNZMANN: Oh, Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that looking at the diversity training. I really appreciated what Amanda Machado said in her piece about having diversity training. And there really is not enough of that. Expect the teachers and the paraprofessionals, the ones who help the teachers, to be in the meeting and to engage. I say that because paraprofessionals are the ones that are the minorities. And so making it important for the diversity training, and not to make fun. I really getting tired of being in the lunchroom and hearing names being made fun of or parents being put down or things like this. And I speak up, but I'm only one person.
MARTIN: It sounds like there are some things that you agree with Amanda Machado about.
MARTIN: But I think - is the main thing you feel that people should stop being so romantic about teaching, that if they go into teacher recognize that it is a tough job?
MARTIN: Would that be the bottom line?
KUNZMANN: Yes. I like that. Do not romanticize teaching because it is nothing like that. Nothing. You know, if you're going to save the world, you have to understand that - if you're going to save the world, one kid at a time and that kid's not going to come back to tell you until 20 years later.
MARTIN: Victoria Kunzmann is a high school English teacher. Can I - may I be the one to say today - to say thank you for teaching?
MARTIN: Thank you for your hard work.
KUNZMANN: You're very welcome. I value my job and I value what I do. Thank you very much.
MARTIN: And she was kind enough to join us from her home office in Kingman, Arizona. Victoria Kunzmann, thanks so much for speaking with us.
KUNZMANN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.