By all accounts, Angel Magana is a natural-born teacher. Growing up, he spent hours teaching his two younger siblings what he learned in school.
But in northeast Denver, every single one of his teachers in elementary and middle school was a white woman. The only adults who looked like him were the ones serving lunch in the cafeteria or emptying the trash cans in the hallway.
Magana, a Mexican-American 19-year-old, knows he doesn’t look like the average teacher. In fact, only 9 percent of public school teachers are Hispanic, and about 2 percent are Hispanic men—despite the fact that the Hispanic student population is the fastest growing in the country, making up about a quarter of K-12 students.
As a student, Magana said, “I thought it was very odd that the students were part of one culture, and they were getting all of their education, which they would be using for the rest of their life, from someone who, on some occasions, couldn’t relate.”
It wasn’t until Magana was a high school junior that he had a Latino male teacher—his Spanish teacher.
It was a “defining moment,” Magana said. It showed him what it was like to be able to relate to a teacher, and it reinforced his own desire to go into the profession.
“I wanted to be the change, basically. That’s one of my life goals,” he said. “Why not me? Why can’t I go forward and teach and inspire kids, especially Latino males, and show them that this field, this life, is very giving and very fulfilling?”
Magana is now studying elementary education at the University of Colorado Denver and is enrolled in the school’s NxtGEN Teacher Residency program, which allows him to work as a paid paraprofessional at a local elementary school, while working toward his teaching degree. But as a first-generation, low-income college student, the path to becoming a teacher has not been easy—something education leaders know all too well. Recruiting more Hispanic teachers into the classroom has been a priority for schools and districts, especially those with large populations of Hispanic students. And while some of those initiatives have shown signs of success, there is still a lot of work to do.
Luckily, Magana has a small army of supporters behind him who are working to get him through college and into the classroom—a microcosm of the efforts and challenges involved in recruiting Latino male teachers into an overwhelmingly white and female profession and keeping them there.
‘You Can’t Be Who You Can’t See’
Magana’s trajectory into teaching formally started when he was a senior in high school. He enrolled in Pathways2Teaching, a class designed for students of color to earn college credit by studying issues related to educational justice.
The goal of the class, said Margarita Bianco, the founder and executive director of Pathways2Teaching, is for students of color to understand the inequities of their school system, and then come back to be “agents of change"—as teachers.
These types of grow-your-own programs that target high school students, Bianco said, are essential tools to recruit teachers from more diverse backgrounds. Many teachers of color want to work in their communities of origin, and these programs are a way to cultivate homegrown talent. Pathways2Teaching—which reached about 450 students, 42 percent of whom were young men of color, in its first seven years in Denver—has expanded to Nashville, Tenn., this year, and Bianco is working to bring the program to Duluth, Minn., and Columbia, S.C.
“You can’t be who you can’t see,” Bianco said. “For Latino young men, they often think of teaching as a female-dominated profession, and it is if they only see white females in front of the classroom. It’s race and it’s gender.”
Many students of color, she said, have never been encouraged to become teachers. Indeed, Magana said his family initially pushed back against the idea of him teaching.
“In a masculine Latino family, it’s looked at as a feminine profession,” Magana said. “It was kind of a shock to the system. It’s sort of a tradition [in our family that] you’re outside, you’re painting, you’re doing construction, heavy work like that.”
And the fact that teaching is seen as a low-paid profession doesn’t help. Magana’s family members, he said, would say things like, “You have so much talent. You can earn more elsewhere, why would you go into teaching?”
Magana is only one of three men in the NxtGEN teacher residency program, which currently has 124 students enrolled. Tania Hogan, the NxtGEN residency coordinator, said she has carved out extra space for the male students, two of whom are Latino, to talk about their unique experiences and bond over overcoming those types of cultural barriers.
Personalized support is one of the hallmarks of the NxtGEN program.
“One of the things we understood right from the beginning is you can’t really invite first-generation, diverse students in, without preparing to make sure they’re successful,” said Barbara Seidl, the associate dean for teacher education and undergraduate experiences at the university’s Denver campus. “They encounter this new cultural context of college, and they need support.”
Weaving a Web of Supports
For example, faculty members in the NxtGEN program will accompany students to the financial aid office, to help them interpret what’s being said and create a plan. Students also receive academic coaching and tutoring as needed.
Teacher residency programs, like NxtGEN, have emerged as a particularly effective way to recruit diverse teaching candidates, including first-generation college students, students of color, and mid-career changers. This school year, 52 percent of resident teachers nationwide are nonwhite, according to data from the National Center for Teacher Residencies.
The paid clinical component to these types of programs—for Magana, working as a one-to-one paraprofessional assisting a child with special needs while taking classes—has two major benefits, experts say. It mitigates some of the financial barriers of attending college, while giving students meaningful experience that will hopefully yield graduates who stay in the profession longer.
“We had kids graduating from high school who were eager and enthusiastic about becoming teachers—but they were working at fast-food places” to make ends meet, Bianco said. “They weren’t in environments that were supporting them and helping them navigate those higher ed spaces, so they weren’t finishing school.”
Magana said the program made a difference for him: “As a young Latino male, going into things—you feel as if you’re a little in it by yourself.
"[NxtGEN] reassured me that what I was doing with my life is the right thing,” he continued. “They really paved the way for me to be where I [want to be].”
He also credits Bianco, from Pathways2Teaching, for giving him extra support and guidance.
“It really does take a village, not just me, but my whole team,” said Bianco, who is also an associate professor of special education at the University of Colorado Denver. “We become an extended family, just making sure they’re on the right track at every juncture.”
Sometimes, she said, that means buying Pathways2Teaching graduates the college textbooks they can’t afford. Often, it means answering texts and calls at all hours, including on weekends. Magana, for instance, once called Bianco the night before an interview to get advice and reassurance.
“I think that [support] is critically important, especially for first-generation college students like Angel and myself,” Bianco said. “You just don’t know what you don’t know.”
When Magana took a semester off for personal reasons, Hogan, the NxtGEN residency coordinator, sent him regular emails and texts to check on him and make sure he was planning to return.
“I [told him], ‘I’m not going to let you not come back,’” she said. “Statistically, Latino males in college don’t keep going. That was a conversation I had with him. You can’t be a statistic.’ ”
Hogan even sent him recordings of elementary students whom Magana had worked with, as well as a message from Magana’s mentor teacher, asking him to come back. The next semester, Magana returned to school.
Many first-generation students or low-income students will take more than four years to graduate college, Bianco said.
“We all have to be persistent and make sure we’re committed to supporting these teachers through the long run,” she said.
As more states and districts commit to working to increase the number of nonwhite teachers, advocates are hopeful that the tide is turning—but they acknowledge there is a long road ahead.
“I think nationally, we’re really poised to tackle this issue,” said David Fuentes, an associate professor of elementary education at William Paterson University, a Hispanic-serving institution in New Jersey.
The college-enrollment rate has risen at a faster rate for Hispanic high school graduates than it has for white, black, and Asian high school graduates—in 2016, nearly half of Hispanic high school graduates were enrolled in college, up from 32 percent in 1999.
“Our country is changing,” Fuentes said. “Part of that tells me there will be inevitable changes to education. ... But somehow, education completely subverts societal trends.”
Indeed, a 2016 study by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and the National Council on Teacher Quality found that the teacher diversity gap is stubborn: The proportional difference between Hispanic teachers and Hispanic students is expected to actually increase by 4 percentage points, to about 22 percent in 2060. This is because the number of Hispanic teachers is not increasing at a rate commensurate with the rapid growth of Hispanic students.
Rather than focusing on retention efforts or strategic hiring efforts, researchers said, an emphasis needs to be on patching the pipeline early on by graduating more Hispanic students from college and encouraging them to consider teaching as a profession.
For his part, Magana hopes to be a model for other Latino men who aspire to be teachers. But for now, he’s excited about his own future. He’s considering becoming a principal, an administrator, even a district superintendent.
“The sky is the limit, really,” he said. But first, he said, “I want to be a teacher for a long time.”