Grow Your Own Teachers helps low-income people of color who have the desire to become teachers earn a bachelor’s degree in education—a goal that would otherwise be almost impossible for them to achieve. Yet a recent news report fell short by viewing the program as a conveyor belt, and failing to capture what I and many other graduates felt by becoming the first person in our family to graduate from a university and get a job as a CPS teacher.
It also fails to capture how important it is for children in my classroom to have a teacher who looks like them and who shares their life experience. (“Illinois falls short in $20 million effort to develop 1,000 teachers,” Chicago Tribune.)
I am a Hispanic female, born to Mexican immigrant, working parents. I was born and raised in Chicago, one of five siblings. I attended four different CPS elementary schools and, given the bad timing of my parents’ divorce, graduated with a very low GPA from a low-performing, low-income high school on the Northwest Side. I can count on one hand how many of my fellow high school graduates went on to complete a bachelor’s degree. With a lot of struggle, I earned an associate’s degree from a community college, and at the age of 19, seven months before receiving that degree, I gave birth to my first child.
While growing up, my parents constantly reminded me of the hardships and poverty they endured in their small village in Guerrero, Mexico. My mom is the oldest of eight siblings and completed school through 6th grade. My father had to help my grandfather work the land and attended school only up to 3rd grade. My parents would always tell me and my siblings how important it was for us to take advantage of the opportunities of this great country. Unfortunately, I was missing two of the most important factors that impact college attendance: financial support and, most importantly, informed guidance. I knew I was going to graduate from a university one day but I had no idea how to make that a reality.
Crucial support to overcome hurdles
That’s where Grow Your Own Teachers comes into play. By the age of 31, I had gone back to school at Northeastern Illinois University. I was a part-time student and a stay-at-home mother of two, studying for a degree in elementary education. But it was a constant struggle, especially when it came to math. Pre-algebra, for instance, was one of three math courses that I had to pass before I was eligible to take college math–but it would not earn me any credits toward graduation. I also struggled to pay for books since my loan did not cover them and my husband’s income was barely enough to cover the family expenses.
That same year, I was a parent volunteer at my son’s CPS preschool. An assistant preschool teacher there told me about a program called Grow Your Own Teachers that could help me. The program was for parent volunteers and school paraprofessionals who wanted to get a degree in elementary education at Northeastern Illinois, where I was already enrolled. I applied and got in.
I became a full-time student, attending year-round. During the summer, I took four classes—the maximum number of classes allowed. That was difficult because my husband worked and my children were out of school. On some occasions, my children would wait for me outside of my classroom in the study area. The professor knew I was a mom and did not object to my frequent breaks to check on my children. Other times, Grow Your Own Teachers provided child care and I was able to focus in the classroom.
Another hurdle was passing the Basic Skills Test. Now known as TAP or the Test of Academic Proficiency, it is one of three state tests that teachers have to pass before they can earn a teaching license. Grow Your Own Teachers provided me with a math tutor and test workshops. I finally passed the five-hour test on the second try.
Those were just a few of the many hurdles that Grow Your Own Teachers helped me to overcome.
After three and a half years, I graduated with honors from Northeastern Illinois University. One of the best moments in my life was having my mom watch me walk across the stage to receive my degree.
Understanding heritage, inspiring students
Today, I am proud to say that I am a kindergarten teacher at a low-income CPS school. Every day I go to my classroom ready to inspire my students. Most of them are amazed that my background is similar to theirs. For example, no one in our families has a college degree, our parents do not speak English and they were born in another country. The children get a kick out of the fact that I also secretly ate hot Cheetos for breakfast when I was young because my parents left early for work and they didn’t have time to make breakfast.
During the 12 years that I attended CPS, I encountered very few minority teachers and no teachers with a Mexican background like me. I always wished for one. I felt that a teacher who shared my background would understand my heritage and would inspire me. Now, I can be that teacher who has a positive influence on the children I teach. Our common background provides me with tools and references that facilitate making connections. The other day, I read Gary Soto’s “Too Many Tamales” to my students and they were excited to learn that my family also makes tamales for Christmas.
The hurdles that I had to overcome to earn my degree were few compared to my fellow Grow Your Own members. Some of them are working full-time or part-time and have been in the program and attending classes part-time for more than five years. One woman told me how she had to leave school temporarily to take care of a sick, elderly parent. Some have to cut back on their own studies so they can earn extra money to pay tuition for children who are starting college. I admire their resilience. Most participants stick with the program, working and studying hard and knowing that they will achieve their goal one day. To them I say, “Keep trying, because earning a college degree is worth it.”
So many people around me now see me as a role model—my children, my family, my fellow Grow Your Own members, my students, my students’ parents, my para-professional colleagues. I am only one of the many graduates who can inspire others like me.
It reminds me of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.”
Idalia Vasquez is a 2013 graduate of the Grow Your Own program and a CPS teacher.