Months after reading Glenda Flores’ award-winning book, Latina Teachers, I couldn’t stop thinking about the teachers I’d had and the role they played in my becoming a scientist.
I am one of a handful of U.S.-born Mexican-American scientists in evolutionary biology. Last year, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science honored me with the Distinguished Scientist Award for my research and for my efforts to promote diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The visibility of a Latina scientist like NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa in the media encourages me. The leaky pipeline for minorities in STEM does not.
In the book, Flores describes how public schools across the country in states like New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California are undergoing a process of “Latinization.” In California, 54 percent of children enrolled in public schools are Hispanic or Latino. In the professional workforce, especially in jobs that require degrees in science and math, Latinos remain underrepresented. Nationwide, only about 7 percent of STEM workers are Latino.
My research indicates that Latino science, math and computer science teachers comprise 3 percent of California public school K-12 teachers. I couldn’t help but wonder: If more K-12 STEM teachers were Latino, would we have more Latino STEM workers?
I fell in love with science as a child, and unlike many of the university biology students that I teach, I never had an interest in becoming a medical doctor. We were living in Grand Terrace, California, a town with 9,000 people, edged by orange groves, on a bluff overlooking the town of Colton, where my mother worked as a bilingual teacher.
My mother made it a point to take me to the San Bernardino County Museum in the summer, which piqued my interest in fossils, and when I was in middle school, I participated in a youth science program at a private zoological institute. Both experiences, led by teachers, influenced my decision to study science in college, and later become a scientist. As a Latina, I was fortunate to have family members with a background in education to serve as role models. Many other Mexican-Americans growing up in Colton, a school district with 85% Hispanic students, were not so privileged.
My mother and grandmother both attended Colton High School before me, and like many of its current students, struggled with food insecurity, a challenge that leads some students to drop out of school before graduating. The town of Colton has a large Mexican-American population, drawn to the area to work in the citrus industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also with a history of segregated schools and discrimination.
In 1937, my maternal grandmother, a daughter of Mexican immigrants from Nuevo León and Michoacán, was the only Spanish-surnamed woman attending Colton High to graduate. Two years later, my grandmother married my grandfather, an immigrant from Aguascalientes, Mexico who had needed to drop out of high school to pick oranges during the Great Depression. In 1965, their daughter (my mother) was the only Spanish-surnamed woman from San Bernardino County, the largest county in the U.S., to graduate from the University of California, Riverside, a university that is now a Hispanic-serving institution.
Both women went on to become bilingual elementary school teachers.
Given my family’s history, and my own aspirations as a student of becoming a professor, I read with great interest in Latina Teachers that affirmative action programs “opened up former male-dominated occupations such as medicine and law to white women.” In turn, professions such as teaching and nursing, previously dominated by white women, started to become open to Latinas.
Although Latinos are making inroads in the teaching profession, there are still significant barriers to entry. More than 80 years after my grandmother graduated from Colton High, Latinos have a long way to go in terms of representation in teaching, especially in the sciences.
Becoming a STEM Teacher
I have been collecting information about what obstacles exist to both Latino teachers and students in pursuing STEM careers and am struck by how their stories resemble that of my mother and grandmother’s. Many of the teachers and students I interviewed are the children of recent immigrants.
In 2000, Gloria Ramírez-Haldeman was a biology major between her junior and senior years at the University of La Verne when she decided to take an MCAT preparation course. Even though she wanted to become a doctor since she was a child, she told herself if she did not obtain a particular score on the MCAT, she wasn’t cut out to be one. When Gloria did not receive the score she was hoping for, she felt lost and clueless about what to do next.
Her father worked as a janitor and her mother was a homemaker. Both were Mexican immigrants. As a first-generation college student, Gloria didn’t know whom to turn to for guidance.
“I didn’t speak to my professors about [the MCAT] because it happened over the summer. That eight-hour long test was a negative experience. I think I used it as an excuse to no longer pursue medical school.”
“My then-boyfriend now-husband always knew he wanted to become a teacher. He said why not take some tests to become a teacher?”
Gloria had finished the course requirements for her degree, but she still had her senior thesis to write, which meant that she was eligible for financial aid, and could take teacher certification courses.
In 2002, at the age of 22, she started teaching science at Colton High School and hasn’t looked back.
“It is what I was meant to do,” she said.
Ramírez-Haldeman is one of a handful of California public school teachers that are Latino science and math teachers.
One day in April, I visited Ramírez-Haldeman’s mostly Latino chemistry classroom and observed her teaching. I was curious to see what it would be like to have a Latina science teacher, an experience I never had when I was a student at Colton High in the mid-1980s.
A shy sophomore in 1985, I took chemistry in Colton High School’s science building in a large room divided into a small lecture theater with a blackboard at the front and long lab benches with sinks at the back. I sat in the last row of seats next to a fidgety senior sporting a punked-out motorcycle jacket. While Mr. Black, our white chemistry teacher, stood at the front of the classroom wielding a piece of chalk, I’d stare at rows of chairs in front of me, studying their graffiti. Colton High School’s science building, constructed in 1938, one year after my grandmother graduated, was showing its age.
When I arrived at Colton High School that morning in April to visit Ramírez-Haldeman’s classroom, I was amazed to discover that in 2012 the school district built a $12.6 million dollar science and math building in the footprint of where the old building stood. The names “Galileo,” “Pasteur,” and “Einstein,” which had decorated the old building, had been applied to benches.
Ramírez-Haldeman showed me the state-of-the art science lab and prep rooms, and later I observed her teaching a lesson on acidification to her chemistry class in one of the new labs. The students all seemed engaged in the lesson as they bent over their beakers, but when I asked the class of 28 sophomores if any of them were planning on majoring in science in college, no one raised their hands.
“What about becoming a teacher?” Ramírez-Haldeman asked. Again, none of the students replied.
I then asked the students if they knew that they could get high paying jobs by studying science and math in college. They seemed surprised. One of the boys said, “Like what?”
The need for a diverse STEM workforce, including science and math teachers, is growing. In order to expand the number of STEM workers, who get paid two-thirds more than non-STEM workers, public schools, especially those with high minority student populations, need to hire more teachers of color.
Teaching is the top profession for Latinas, and in California, 20 percent of public school teachers are Latinx. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that through 2024, the second-fastest growth rate for STEM occupations will be for STEM-related postsecondary teachers.
The entry of Latinos into the teaching profession could not come at a better time. Like many states across the U.S., California suffers from chronic teacher shortages due to lower wages relative to educational attainment, and challenging working conditions. Shortages are especially acute among teachers who specialize in math and science and who turn over at a rate of 19% each year. About 30,000 new teachers are needed a year to replace existing teachers in California lost through retirement and attrition.
The Importance of Role Models
How important are role models to student performance?
“Research has shown that having a teacher of the same race/ethnicity can have positive impacts on a student’s attitudes, motivation, and achievement,” according to a 2019 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Black male students, for example, are 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school if a single Black teacher in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades teaches them.
“This suggests that a teacher’s race, which is observable at the time of hiring and school or classroom assignments, is a useful predictor of teachers’ abilities to reduce demographic gaps in educational achievement,” according to the 2017 study by the Institute of Labor Economics.
Verenice Bravo, a graduate of UC Berkeley and a science teacher at Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose, CA, incorporates diversity into her biology lessons. Her approach reminds me of the elementary school teachers in Flores’ book who use culturally-relevant math-solving strategies in their teaching. “I am a strong believer of culture through curriculum,” she said. “I stick in some Spanish words here and there. For the students who don’t know what I am talking about, I tell them they are going to learn some Spanish. When we study diseases I approach topics that focus on [Latinos, who are prone to diseases] like diabetes and obesity. I show statistics that Mexico is the most obese country in the world.”
Despite the pressing need for new science and math teachers of color, President Trump’s immigration policies are likely having a negative effect one of the pipelines of Latinos into teaching. Among California’s 201,000 DACA recipients, there are about 4,000-5,000 individuals working in the teaching profession, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
While not all of these individuals are teachers, many are teaching support staff, like my humble and intelligent grandmother who was a teacher’s aide for decades before she went back to school and got her teaching credential in her 60s. In school districts’ “grow your own“ teacher training programs, women like my grandmother, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, are an indispensable source of new teachers. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to rule against DACA recipients next year, the scarcity of science and math teachers of color is only likely to get worse.
‘We Needed You Too’
The morning after Trump was elected, Ramírez-Haldeman’s 9 year-old daughter was in tears. She asked Ramirez-Haldeman, “Are they going to take my grandparents away?”
“Here we saw this little girl who was so hopeful at the time. The election had a huge impact on her. My husband and I had to take the day off.”
The next day when Ramirez-Haldeman’s husband, a teacher in the Hesperia school district arrived at school, his students told him: “Kids ran around the high school with Confederate flags [yesterday] telling the other kids to go back to where [they came] from’. ‘Where were you?’ they asked. My husband was honest with them and told them his daughter needed him. His students said, ‘We needed you too.’”
Adriana D. Briscoe is a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Biological Sciences. Her full profile is here.