In summary

It is vital that we bring in more STEM educators of color like me to be a role model and a guide for our students.

By Jose Rivas, Special to CalMatters

Jose Rivas teaches AP physics, electronics and product development to 11th and 12th graders at Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy in Lennox, jrivas@lennoxacademy.org. He is a 2020-21 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.

I had wanted to become an engineer ever since I was a child. But growing up in the barrio, it felt like I was alone in fighting to make this dream come true — with no guidance, role models or support to achieve this goal.  

When I finally began my journey toward an engineering degree, I was told, “Mexicans can’t be engineers!” “Hispanics can barely add let alone do calculus.” Anger was my immediate response. 

As a Salvadoran-American, these words hurt me more than I realized at the time. Intellectually, I knew I stood on the shoulders of giants. My Mayan ancestors developed the concept of zero and mathematically charted the skies to predict the future. They engineered massive stone structures to track the heavens and ensure crops were planted to produce the most bounty. I knew this, but the words I heard still fueled a feeling of being an imposter, even after I became an engineer and was designing spacecraft. 

It was a feeling I could not shake for a very long time. When I finally confronted these emotions, it lit a spark in me. I knew that I had to do something not just for myself, but for my community.  

I decided I would not allow other young aspiring scientists and engineers in my small inner-city community go through the same experiences that I did. My focus became one of creating access and equity. 

This led me on many paths, from becoming a board member to helping establish a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) high school to becoming a teacher. As a teacher, I would find my voice and address what I had experienced and felt so many years ago. 

Now, I had the opportunity to teach students science and engineering. Now, I had the opportunity to be a role model and a guide for students like me growing up in the hood. I had an insatiable drive to bring opportunities, resources and grants to spur my students’ creativity and innovation to help them know that they deserve the best education possible. Inexorably, this led my students to want to show the world their potential.

We entered an engineering competition with a 3D printed robot, the culmination of their hard work and brilliance. Out of all the grants, equipment and resources, I realized that their voice was the most important resource I had given them. They knew who they were, where they came from and what they were capable of.  

Their robot obliterated the competition, taking 1st place in all categories. No other team came close. After the ceremonies, the trophies and the excitement of winning, I asked my students, “So how do you guys feel?” 

One answered: “Mr. Rivas, winning was an amazing experience, but what really stuck with us was that we were finally seen; we were not just that poor community on the other side of the freeway. That is what is going to stay with us for the rest of our lives! And Mr. Rivas, we could not have done this without your passion and your belief in us.” 

I had come full circle to what I had missed — a guide and an advocate. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we have a diverse teaching force that reflects the hopes and dreams of our students. 

I am happy to see our state leaders, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, recognizing how important it is to prioritize recruiting and retaining teachers of color. As the governor has proposed in his budget, California needs to continue to invest in recruitment strategies like teacher residencies and developing classified employees, as well as grants for new teachers like the Golden State Teacher Grant Program.

Assembly Bill 520, introduced by Assemblymember Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Carson, also elevates how important it is to focus on strategies that retain effective teachers of color. Together, I hope that we can have a comprehensive approach to build a more representative teaching force.

Less than 3% of STEM educators in California are teachers of color. It is vital that we do everything in our power to bring in educators of color like me who will fight, advocate for and give our students a voice. Our perspective is essential to help Black and Brown students realize what they are capable of accomplishing.

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