Letter to the Editor: We need more Hispanic and Latino leaders

Anna Radoff

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This month I had the privilege of celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month alongside 18 strong, resilient and energetic pre-kindergarten students. So what does Hispanic Heritage Month look, sound and taste like in South Chicago? My classroom was filled with the patter of maracas and jazz, plates of tamales and mangos were shared and our walls were decorated in small colorful blocks to resemble the Templo Mayor in Mexico. Although my students are young — just three to five years old — I wanted our celebrations to be as rich and vibrant as my students themselves.

This holiday represents a powerful opportunity for our tiny classroom community — one that allows me to share more about myself, to expand my students’ conceptions of what it means to be Latino and to learn more about the unique culture and stories they bring to school every day. Knowing that my students are so young and their educational journeys so new, during this month in particular, I cannot help but look to their futures.

By 2040, nearly one out of every four U.S. citizens will identify as Hispanic. But as we see Latino leadership rising across the country, there’s one leadership shortage that hits home for me. Today, just 8 percent of teachers identify as Latino. This gap has real, immediate implications for Hispanic students and is a big part of what ultimately brought me to Chicago to help my students become the leaders their community needs.

I wanted my classroom to be a place where my students feel empowered. To ensure that every aspect of my teaching is focused on fostering the leadership of my students, we anchor our classroom around three pillars — “leaders who learn, love and listen.” In return, I see my students live out their leadership every day — sharing craft supplies, helping classmates tie a shoe and learning how to be persistent when they do not succeed the first time at a task. Over the course of our year together, I know these tiny moments will add up to the habits and mindsets that will serve my students for a lifetime.

This focus on Latino leadership resonates with me personally. Growing up, I was really lucky to live in an area with great public schools, but my family didn’t share the same socioeconomic background as many of our neighbors and classmates. Throughout middle and high school, other students and adults were quick to point this out. When I was admitted to Northwestern my senior year, people told me I was filling a diversity quota for the University. By the time I arrived in Evanston, I suffered from severe self-doubt and it took several great professors at NU to show me that my background and my Latina identity are not obstacles to overcome, but an asset to leverage for my community. I teach my students to believe in their leadership because I never want them to doubt their worth in society, not for even a minute.

The path towards meaningful change has been taken by regular people committed to making extraordinary things possible. As a Teach For America corps member, I know that I’m part of a growing network of Latino leaders, answering the call to fight for social justice in the classroom. Great teachers come from all backgrounds, identities and experiences, but we are united by this difficult and deeply inspiring work.  Every day, I am challenged to play a role in the future I imagine and humbled to work with a group of students whose resilience and kindness never cease to amaze. As you imagine your own future, I hope you’ll join us in becoming leaders.

Anna Radoff (Weinberg ’14) 

Teach For America-Chicago corps member