I’ll never forget watching the film “Stand and Deliver” in 1988. I was in eighth grade attending a public school on Long Island and had only had one Latina teacher in my entire educational career. Watching the film, I was amazed at Edward James Olmos’s portrayal of Escalante. A struggling math student myself, I was not a little envious that the students in Escalante’s real class at Garfield High School in Los Angeles were pushed to excel by one of their own.
It wasn’t until seventh grade that I had an inspiring and challenging Latina teacher for my honors history class. I always strove for an A and always came up with an A-. Even the students rallied behind me and said,”Why don’t you give Ileana an A?” She would always say: “There’s room for improvement!” I strove and strove and finally got that A at the end of the year. I wanted to impress her not only because she was my teacher but also because she was one of my own.
Later, in high school, I was taught by a Spanish teacher from México. He always found new ways to engage us with the language, especially by playing his guitar and singing songs. He was one of my own.
Above all, these teachers succeeded not only because they were able to inspire one of their young Puerto Rican students, but also because they were innovators in their profession.
In the video below, Jamie Escalante talks about his years in teaching. His philosophy is clear: “I innovate my teaching constantly.” For those of us who are just starting, or at mid-career, or who are veterans, we must always continue to innovate or we will slowly die, both intellectually and emotionally, in this profession.
I’ve taught in schools where the same text was taught for years without department members asking why it was there in the first place. As a new teacher during that time, it was soul-killing to work with colleagues who did not reflect on their practice or who did not take risks with new and innovative ideas.
But when I listen to Escalante say, “Don’t quit, if you quit, you disintegrate yourself,” I am reminded that we must keep fighting the good fight. We must keep going and we must keep innovating. We must keep at it for our students and for ourselves. We must keep going in honor of Jaime Escalante. One of our own.
For more on Jaime Escalante’s teaching, listen to this NPR report.