My 30-minute commute to work, with the potent three cups of coffee en route and the beauty of the sun shining between sporadic trees, offers a nice snapshot of my past two years. Teaching fifth-grade science to 140 wide-eyed students at PFC David Ybarra Middle School in Edcouch-Elsa, Tex., has been the most demanding but inspiring experience of my life. It has also been quite surreal for one particular reason: I've had the opportunity to inspire hundreds of students in the little town where I grew up.
Going into Brown as a freshman, I had my heart set on medical school. I was taking classes to fulfill the requirements needed for a degree in Human Biology but, like every other student, I changed my concentration midway. I fell in love with the Department of Latin American Studies, which is where I eventually received my degree.
Yet, as graduation approached, I felt compelled to push off graduate school to fulfill a larger purpose in my life. Having interned for Teach For America my junior year, I learned about the organization's mission and goals. I came to realize that joining such a powerful movement was what I needed to do post-graduation. You might say that I heard "the calling," but to this day I have never felt quite as passionate about anything I've ever done before.
Teach For America is a non-profit organization whose mission is to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation's most promising future leaders in the effort. Recent college graduates from all backgrounds and career interests commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools. In doing so, Teach For America teachers go above and beyond traditional expectations to lead their students to significant academic achievement, despite the challenges of poverty and the limited capacity of various public school systems.
The achievement gap hasn't always been something I've been attempting to minimize. Growing up, I was a part of those statistics. The Rio Grande Valley, located in the southern-most portion of Texas, is 96 percent Latino. Depending on the school district, 71 to 97 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Many students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch sometimes eat only the meals that are offered to them at school.
The Rio Grande Valley is growing rapidly and is home to some of the poorest counties in the nation. A large number of the region's students live in colonias, unincorporated neighborhoods often lacking basic infrastructure such as paved roads, running water and electricity. The challenges of poverty hinder students' ability to study or even get to school. But in the face of these setbacks, I have noticed that academic success is very much possible within the classroom.
Throughout my two-year commitment, there have been rare, yet inspiring moments. One example is when my most challenging student pulled me aside and in a low whisper said, "Mr. Martinez, you're the best teacher I've ever had because you're the only guy on our team … and because you're the only person who has ever made learning fun for me."
Moments like these compel me to ensure that my students succeed in and out of the classroom. I've been told that I'm the first young, male role model that most of these students have ever had, and the fact that I grew up in the town where they live allows them to see the possibility of success. Every chance I get, I emphasize the importance of graduating from high school and of attaining a college education. I emphasize that a college degree is the best thing anyone could ever have, no matter who you are and where you're from.
Although the achievement gap within our educational system may seem an insurmountable challenge for one individual person to conquer, the mission of Teach For America seems much more attainable when the gap is closed in the classroom itself. With over 7,300 current corps members, each closing the achievement gap in their own classrooms, we are all players on the same team, aiming for the same target: to ultimately give all children in this country an opportunity to have an excellent education.
It's the academic inadequacies I see every single day that fuel the fire within me to be the best teacher I can be. Although it has been an arduous road, being a teacher through Teach For America has been an epic and fulfilling chapter of my life. Teach For America has given me the opportunity to inspire great young minds. I urge you to consider joining me in the movement to end educational inequity.
Marco Martinez '08 is in his second year of teaching in Edcouch-Elsa, Tex.
He can be reached at Mantoniomartinez [at] gmail.com.