Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing someone whose charisma blew me away from the first moment I met him. He has been an influential leader on our campus and in our fraternity, making me proud to call him a brother. More importantly, he’s quasi-Facebook famous.
1. Introduce yourself.
My name is Merlin Valdez and I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic until the age of 12. Then I came to live in the United States and as a successful product of the sometimes not-so-successful system of American Public Bilingual Education, graduated from high school to attend Syracuse University from which I just graduated with a Bachelor of Sciences degree on Communication and Rhetorical Studies with minors in Global Enterprise Technology, Latin American Studies, and Japanese language. Some fun facts about me are that I am an Asia traveling addict and I also will become the President of the Dominican Republic at some point during my lifetime–stay tuned.
2. So you have recently graduated from Syracuse University. What are your postgraduate plans?
Starting June 3rd, I will serve as a proud corps member for Teach for America, teaching general bilingual education for the Dallas Texas Independent School District.
3. What a great opportunity! How does one become a teacher for this organization?
Through Teach for America, you’re in for a lot of work (haha), but it’s all different depending on the state. For instance, NYC certification and onboarding is said to be one of the toughest in the nation. In Dallas specifically, we had to pass a test to certify our area of teaching. I took mine in bilingual education and general ed (a mixture of sciences, math, English, and social studies.)
Then there’s the pre-work, which is a long list of assignments and readings, and an additional two books that highlight the core of working for TFA: “A Chance to Make History” by Wendy Kopp (founder of TFA) and “Teaching as Leadership” by Steven Farr. Though this work is extensive, it is extremely enriching and I have enjoyed reading every bit of it, as it gives me all the background I need for tackling classrooms of poor communities with success and builds my confidence in becoming a teacher.
All of this happens prior to a month-long intense training in the headquarters of the state we are serving, in which we will work from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. learning to teach, practicing teaching, and continuing to develop ourselves professionally as educators. This month of training is, of course, followed by some more weeks of training as determined by our school district. That’s something I’d like to call a Power Summer.
4. Will you be teaching beside other TFA members?
Yes! About 560 of them to be exact, of which I believe about 14 will be at my school!
5. If you don’t mind me asking, what is the compensation for such a position?
It all depends on the region in which you are placed and the kind of work that you will be doing. In my case, as a bilingual teacher I will be making $46,000 per year. Additionally, some regions like mine have what is called an AmeriCorps partnership in which you can qualify for an $11,000 dollar scholarship that can go towards anything, including schooling or transitioning into another job after completion of the program. Additionally, you can freeze your loan payments until your commitment with TFA is over, and if you are working in an area that has low living costs, you should be able to live comfortably!
6. You’ll be working in Dallas, Texas. Did you have any say in this location?
Yes, particularly those that apply in the earlier deadlines of the program have the ability to pinpoint the region and cities that they are interested in. Although TFA has the final say in where your placement will be, if you have a strong case (marriage, kids, house, etc.), or if you apply early enough so that spots are available in the places you want to go, it is likely you end up there! All my top three choices were in Texas and I made it there.
7. What are you most excited about?
I am excited about the fact that I will become comfortable with my school, and I will enjoy my work with these children. I am also excited to build relationships with these students, their parents, and their communities. Looking back at my life, I have been lucky enough to feel loved and influential in the communities that I’ve inhabited. I am excited to add my school and Dallas to that community.
8. What do you believe causes educational inequity?
Educational inequity is caused by a combination of very specific concentrated issues that together pose an unfair advantage to our children. Though there are more than these, let me mention three issues that I think are important. Poverty, societal expectations, and the systems of control that govern our society. Poverty is one of the biggest causes of educational inequity, due to the fact that poorer communities are unable to fiscally invest in their schools and poorer households have limited access to health care, academic enrichment facilities and opportunities (such as museums and study abroad programs.) This lack of access puts children at a disadvantage from the beginning, as poor households will lack the resources and time for a child’s independent academic development, and in some cases can cause the child to seek to enter the workforce early and interrupt his or her education.
Now societal expectations is a tricky one, because we are all a part of it. How many mainstream movies or TV shows have you seen where the protagonist is a black doctor (that is not that guy from Scrubs) or a Hispanic lawyer (that is not corrupt), or black youth are portrayed as successful college students (that do not deal drugs, or are at the life of a party)? Now compare that amount to the number of blacks and Hispanics that are portrayed in opposite roles such as criminals, corrupt cops, athletes, gangsters, rappers and more. Our children get an overwhelming message at an early stage of their life that these are the true essences of our identities, and that is incorrect. Additionally, in the urban school setting students are not being told that they are on a path to college, they are not being told that they are all smart, beautiful, and that hard work is all it takes to succeed. They are not being told to be learners for life. They are taught that school is a transitional method of getting a job, or to attend a local community college; they are not being told that although their families are struggling, they can become rich in knowledge and uplift themselves and others by becoming smart and kind individuals. The problem is not that our kids are failures, it is the fact that we are all partaking actively and passively in relaying the message that we do not believe in their potential. Once we change that for ALL students, we will close a big gap of the educational inequity issue
Finally, systems of control. We live in hierarchical systems in which some are at the top and enjoy all benefits of society, and the rest fall below. We are all complacent about the way our economic system works in favor of those at the top. In order to sustain such a system inequity at all levels of society is necessary. In the economic frame in which we operate (globally), human rights and inclusive political involvement are detrimental to profit. As long as blacks and Hispanics (and any other disenfranchised group) continue to receive an unequal education, we can maintain that unequal system. Now, this is not a plan designed by one evil group, or one evil person. It is something that we all participate in when we believe that the high price of the dollar is more indicative of how good our country is, rather than how many people are uneducated or hungry. It is something we all take part of when we believe that innovation is a result of a thirst of money rather than a thirst for knowledge. It is something that we all take a distinct part of when we believe that our children are at fault for their educational failures, when we’ve been telling them that they can’t succeed all along.
Big thanks to Merlin for giving us insight into a current issue in our country and an organization that attempts to eliminate it. Stay tuned, prospies.