By Aurene Castora Padilla
My grandparents immigrated to America for a better life; chasing the American dream of prosperity through hard work on plantations. They instilled these values in my parents who were excellent role-models: a retired colonel and principal and a former teacher of the year.
My parents wanted the best for us and they made huge sacrifices to send my brother and me to private school. They trusted that this would enable their children to fulfill the American dream.
My private school years were confusing and lonely. At school I learned that through education there was an exciting world that I could conquer. But through social interactions with my peers I felt isolated and alienated. The more I learned how different I was, the more torn I became. Every day I struggled with identity. I ate different foods; I looked different. I did not fit in. I learned that assimilation was imperative and I adopted the ways of my peers: talking like them, dressing like them, and shedding my old self as fast I could. I stopped going to the beach because I was tired of being teased about my dark skin. I shamefully avoided the Filipino workers on campus when a classmate asked if I was related to “them.” I was embarrassed to say my middle name, “Castora,” out loud and wished it was Anne or Jean. I laughed at the jokes about Filipinos eating dogs and fighting chickens. It was exhausting wishing I was someone else. I slowly grew apart from my family and shunned their ways. I became the “stuck up cousin” that went to Private School.
However, at school I was ashamed, lonely, and longed to find someone to connect with. All the academic success and athletic accolades did nothing to make me feel like I belonged. Upon graduation from high school I was lost. A part of me was set on becoming a teacher like my parents, another part of me thought I needed higher aspirations. One classmate asked me, “Why are you at this school if you only want to be a teacher?” I was torn between who I was on the inside and who I thought I was supposed to be. There was no one I could talk to about any of this. Who would possibly understand? To tell my parents would be devastating. To admit any of this out loud would be shameful. I struggled for years trying to achieve the American dream that my private education afforded me while simultaneously trying to be true to myself. It was impossible.
A few weeks ago at a conference for teachers I attended a presentation by Dr. Patricia Halagao of the University of Hawaii. Her words resonated within me, “students need windows and mirrors, windows to see out of and mirrors to reflect who they are.” Her words provided a clarity that evaded me for many years. At that moment I understood my years of struggle. As a student I had many windows that showed me the world that I could be successful in, but I lacked mirrors in school to reinforce I could be successful exactly as I was. Luckily for me, I had strong role models at home in my parents. But what about those students who didn’t?
And so, it made sense that when I finally committed to teaching and began my teaching career I signed up to teach in school districts that had students of FIlipino ancestry. I instinctively knew that I wanted to ensure that students that looked like me knew that their dreams could be fulfilled in an unfamiliar world. I wanted them to be proud of their heritage and not feel the shame that I did for years. I was determined that no child would lose their identity while pursuing the American dream. I would be their mirror.
My first teaching job was teaching Kindergarten Summer School. Most of my students looked like me and many were English Language Learners. One day I was doing a Language Arts lesson and asked my students to list words that began with the “B” sound. I dictated the words, “bat,” “boy,” and “big,” on the chart as they were called out and was startled when one of my shy English Language Learner students raised her hand and said “baboy.” After a pause I gained my composure, smiled, and wrote it on the board below the others asking if anyone knew what “baboy” was. Suddenly the class was alive with chatter. “Baboy” is the Ilocano word for “pig,” and writing it on the board with the other english words proved to be significant. My student and I formed a bond that day and thereafter she would regularly chat with me at recess and offer to share the filipino foods her mom had packed her for snack. I believe that I was a mirror for her, allowing her to realize that her culture and language was valued in school in America.
After that summer I got a permanent job at another school with a predominantly Filipino population. Upon meeting me, parents would ask, “Filipina?” and beam with pride when I answered yes. I was the first Filipina teacher their children ever had. Plates of delicious lumpia and pancit were often delivered to my classroom. I didn't realize the tremendous impact my ethnicity had on my students until recently when a former student posted on my Facebook page:
“There was something in me that felt a lot of pride having someone who was also Filipino other than my parents who kept pushing you, and being the oldest in my family, I never had that mentorship other than my parents.“ Hermie Castillo
Nationwide, statistics show that only 20% of our teachers are of an ethnic minority, however, minority students make up about 50% of the population in public schools. Research has shown that minority students taught by minority teachers tend to have better academic success. It is heartbreaking to know that my story is not unique. How can we ensure that our schools have both windows and mirrors?
It is imperative that we recruit and retain a diverse teaching corp that reflects the populations in our schools. Teaching Pathways and Academies in high schools must identify potential educators and recruit them to return to teach in their communities.
College and career counseling should be readily available to all students and not just students who outwardly fit the higher education profile.
Teachers must be adept in issues of diversity and create communities in schools that recognize and celebrate all students’ cultural identities. Professional development that encourages teachers to learn about other cultures should be readily available, especially when the teacher is unfamiliar with a community’s culture.
Schools must be safe zones for students where their uniqueness is accepted and celebrated. Curriculum that stresses socio-emotional well-being as well as the building of relationships is paramount.
I currently serve as an Induction and Mentoring Program Coordinator in the Hawaii Department of Education. My work brings me to Title 1 Schools where Filipino and Micronesian students populate campuses. It makes me hopeful that there are beginning teachers that I work with who grew up in the communities that they are now serving and who are serving as mirrors for their students.
In my teaching experience, formidable relationships are established when students are able to see themselves in their teachers and teachers are able to relate to, identify with, and value a student’s culture. These bonds strengthen a student’s will to persevere through adversity. These “mirrors” enable students to look out through the windows into the world to formulate dreams and achieve them. Sometimes it’s not possible to have mirrors that completely reflect who a student is. In those instances, students need advocates who enable them to embrace their diversity and help them maneuver through chaotic times. Let’s make sure our schools are filled with both mirrors and windows!