I want to teach. This is my favorite job. It’s challenging, rewarding and simply makes me happy. But you know what else I want? A grown up life. I want a home. I want children. I want to travel. I want to take care of my parents. I want to not be a burden to anyone.
But what I really don’t want is to leave my community. The community I’ve grown up in. The community I work in. The community I know and want to give back to. And because of all of these wants, I find myself becoming a bit discouraged with my favorite job. The job, that although it fills me up with joy, does little to fill me up financially.
The struggle for me has been figuring out how teaching – a career I’ve dedicated myself to and gone into debt for, can be my forever job. Truth is, in San José, it can’t be. The main culprit: Housing. It’s not just ridiculous. It’s I’ll-accept-living-in-a-closet-for-two-grand ridiculous.
So what can I do? 1) Move. 2) Suck it up, and suffer through it.
Here’s the dilemma: If I move a couple of cities away, I won’t know the students I teach, because I won’t know the community, because I can’t afford to live there. So how can I truly help at all? How can I influence a community?
What’s worse: What if my own students can’t afford to live there either?
Every day, I see students whose parents can’t make enough money to live in San José become slowly sifted out of the city. Not for a better job, not for a better school, but because they can’t pay their rent. I have students who never see their parents because their parents are working so much to pay the rent.
I have students who work nights and weekends, students who live with two other families in a two-bedroom apartment, students who don’t have any space for themselves at home, who live in living rooms and garages and never complain.
I feel that someone, somewhere is shaking down the community and creating their own. They’re creating a community where those who can pay these rising rents can stay, and those who can’t either leave, or move into a basement with two other families.
It has become a totally polarized community; therefore a totally polarized population of students.
The amount of students who have left my class this past academic year is alarming. They are all escaping to places like Modesto, Stockton, Tracy or even further to Texas and even back to Mexico. This is some very real downward mobility that puts kids a step behind their peers.
A step into communities they don’t know, away from friends and family and into cities and neighborhoods plagued with poverty. With memories of the great cities they long ago called home, modest homes are turned into three “cozy” studios or knocked down altogether to make space for glass boxed luxury condos.
As educators, we focus so much on getting these same kids to level up with those who are “achieving” at a higher rate. But the reality is that this achievement gap goes beyond intervention courses or relevant curriculum. It goes beyond changing school culture or encouraging kids to challenge themselves with advanced courses.
This achievement gap has less to do with grades and more with the reality of their home life. These kids are already two steps behind their peers whose families can afford the rent or more impressively own their home – the students who don’t have to work; the students who are lucky enough to have the space and the time to do their homework and concentrate on their studies.
This is widening the achievement gap.
Yes, kids should be familiar with the 21st century skills and tools that will help them be successful in this tech-booming community. But we can’t recognize this gap in socio-economic status and try to close it by giving each kid access to iPads. This alone doesn’t solve problems. We can’t ignore their realities and priorities if we genuinely want to help.
So here we are, in a school where half of the staff and half of the student population are being unofficially bussed in. Or even worse, undergoing uncomfortable living situations just to stay.
Now, I don’t want my job to be a sort of martyrdom. Do I accept the reality of not owning a home on a teacher’s budget because it’s my calling? Right now, yes, because it’s my favorite job and a very important job. Also, because I don’t have children and haven’t had the guts to look at the monster that is the housing market.
But, most of all, I want to see these kids succeed. I want them to be my boss. I want them to be my doctor. But they won’t get there if they’re always a step behind and keep slipping backwards.
The hard work and sacrifice of their parents is turning into a sinkhole rather than a stepping-stone. The “natural order” of moving a step ahead of your parents is a myth. How can these kids move forward when their families are drowning?
And how can we, as educators, close the achievement gap when we’re not familiar with their realities? The community is changing, and eventually we may all be pushed out.
But I, for one, still hold on to the hope of giving back to the community that raised me. And in order to resolve the problems in my community, I need to really know my community. And in order to know it, I must live in it.
Iliana Perez is a school teacher in San Jose, California. This essay first appeared in Silicon Valley De-Bug, which is a community organizing, advocacy and media organization in San Jose.