Growing your own teachers worth the wait

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Teacher Idalia Vasquez

Teacher Idalia Vasquez

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.


  • Northside

    First I would like to plead that the grammar and
    spelling police not prey upon a midnight typer.

    However, often my passion outpaces my writing ability.

    I wantto first say that what I am writing does not have anything to do with the
    author. I think it is awesome that she broke many barriers to become a teacher.
    It is more a reflection I feel about the ability for generalities against white
    students, and teachers that need to be discussed. Moreover, I am disturbed that
    Grow Your Own and CPS, especially CPS, endorse a scholarship that discriminates
    against impoverished white students. Especially
    when you consider some of the “white” students are from place like Poland, and
    Russia escaping poverty and perhaps Religious, ethnic, or political Persecutions.
    Can you imagine CPS endorsing a
    scholarship closed to “people of color”.

    In reality I have no problem with concepts like Affirmative Action.

    To start with, I from
    a bilingual Mixed Hispanic and White family. So, I feel I have a right to
    discuss this topic, especially since I have “white” and “Hispanic” people in my
    immediate family. I am in no way a “white
    power” type of person, Actually, I have been
    accused of being TOO LIBERAL. In fact it might be my Liberal side that is
    SHOCKED by a CPS endorsed scholarship that literally discriminates against a
    group of students: White Students. I am sorry but discrimination is discrimination.
    I can go on the record as saying I am a
    huge ANTI Rush Limbaugh and FOX news person.

    However, I am more disgusted that GYO would “literally”
    (literally in the sense that they SAY IT IN PLAIN ENGLISH IN their website “Grow Your
    Own Teachers helps low-income people of color” in other words no whites).
    I am equally shocked the CPS would endorse and be a member of a scholarship that
    literally says “White Children” need not apply! Exactly how could CPS look a
    poor white child in the eye and say they condone discriminatory practices. I hate
    to sound like a cliché. However, can you imagine if a white person wrote this

    I think as a new teacher this idea that we should base our hiring practices on
    racial similarity would be a very slippery slope. I also do not agree with a
    scholarship that , in a roundabout way, discriminates against people solely
    because they are white. I am person form a bilingual family, but I find this
    attitude that only minority teachers can “reach” you to be very
    racist. How are we ever going to move forward if we subtly say that
    “white” teachers can’t connect with minority students. Wouldn’t a
    white teacher with a poor background have a connection with impoverished
    students just as much as a minority teacher from a wealthy background? I have
    known Hispanic teachers tell me that “such and such” Latin American
    countries are uncultured. In fact, some
    Hispanic teachers, from wealthy suburbs, do not speak Spanish. I have
    met Hispanic, white teachers, and black teachers who haven’t the slightest idea
    what language is spoken in a country like Chile. They also have never visited
    Latin America, nor speak Spanish. Yet somehow skin color proves a person’s cultural worthiness? Yet
    they are somehow more “connected and worthy” than a white teacher who
    has lived and volunteered, and struggled to learn Spanish

    I am completely shocked that a teacher would say that “During the 12 years that I attended CPS, I encountered
    very few minority teachers and no teachers with a Mexican background like
    me…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. ”
    In other words, white teachers are less
    effective solely because they are white?

    I know
    CPS is unbalanced racially. Especially in the case of Hispanic teachers. I agree
    that we need to expand our teaching pool and backgrounds. However, expanding
    and giving minority teachers jobs only to teach their “own kind” is
    only a recipe for segregation and racism. Creating
    scholarships that discriminate based on skin color, is very unsettling.

    Can you imagine if a
    white teacher said the following quote: “During the 12 years that I attended
    CPS, I encountered very few minority teachers and no teachers with a (WHITE PROTESTANT) background like me…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. ”

    I know
    that it is not easy for immigrants and their families to break out of poverty
    and discrimination (again I have firsthand knowledge). However, I very troubled
    that a scholarship would literally be “branded” as for minority
    teachers only? In other words, a poor student, who was born with pale skin,
    would not be considered? How can this be considered forward thinking. Poverty
    among white students in some neighborhoods is often just as severe as any other
    background. In fact, I see many white students, in some schools, treated as a
    minority, and discriminated against, by student, and even staff. How can we
    deny a child like this a scholarship? In fact why isn’t there a scholarship for
    male teachers of all colors? Especially since less than 20% of all Elementary
    teachers are male.

    I am not defending a rich white children. It is poverty that holds so many people back today. I am defending the many voiceless white impoverished children I see every day. In fact I like to defend all children of all colors. I am
    not naive. I know that statistically minorities face a much tougher battle, in
    most cases, than white students. I know we need more minority teachers. However,
    I think the ultimate barrier for all students is POVERTY. I think now
    scholarship should EVER be allowed to exclude any RACE, even white. Unless that scholarship is private and not endorsed by a PUBLIC school like CPS. In addition
    I find it very disturbing that in this day and age we are looking for teachers
    who “look” like their students? This reminds me of the pre 60’s
    attitude of Separate but Equal schools. I know it is a stretch, but it has it’s similarities.

    This is taking
    our nation backwards from what people like MLK , Cesar Chavez and other civil
    rights leaders fought and died for. I am
    a white teacher and I have learned that students are color blind. They connect
    to teacher’s who are genuine and compassionate above all. Cultural similarity
    can help, but it can never outweigh a caring teacher of any color. I honestly believe that white students would have case in proving that
    CPS has participated in discriminatory practices. Or at the very least, in a
    moral sense, they condone discriminatory
    scholarships. I know there are many
    scholarships available to white children. However, this still does not excuse
    CPS from being very wrong! Again CPS …please
    explain how you would explain to a poor white student that they are not “welcome”
    to some scholarships you endorse.

    • Given that GYO is in no way, shape, or form “closed” to white candidates, the above impassioned and articulate screed is entirely mistaken. In Southern Illinois, where I work, I attended SIU with a number of GYO candidates, a majority of whom were from the same poor white population they are serving in the area, so the entire premise of your argument is invalid. I would further point out that, if you have to manufacture an ending to someone else’s sentence “in other words, no whites”, you have lost any occasion that would justify the repeated use of the word “literally”. Finally, the statement “X helps low-income people of color.” should not be misconstrued to read “X helps ONLY low-income people of color.”

      • Northside

        In short Travis I just want to help the little man or woman…be he white black latino….I’m not worried about the rich black man in Atlanta anymore than I am worried about the millionaire in lake forest or the rich latino in Miami …I just want to help the poor and economically disadvantaged….before the rauners of the world turn us all back to the feudal system…and as we all know..that didn’t work out to well

        • pepjrp

          Good for you, but you are wasting your breath on racists like Travis.

      • pepjrp

        WE all have a color, you fricken racist!!!

    • pepjrp

      Great job Northside!!!. And their “people of color” term is racist and should be shunned.

  • newnodm

    “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.”

    Really? In a country built primarily by poor immigrants it’s “almost impossible” for a Latina to become a teacher in 2015? I think is relatively easy and straightforward process. It doesn’t require particularly good grades or test scores. Tuition can be borrowed without demonstrating the ability to repay.

    There has never been an easier time for young people from newer immigrant families to cross race and class boundaries and enter a profession.

    • Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own
      facts.—D.P. Moynihan. Regardless of what you think, things like social mobility, and the economic progress of immigrants, are measurable by objective standards (in other words, facts), and the fact is that you are entirely misinformed on almost every single word in
      this post. Try checking the facts on this topic with any informed economist—right, centrist, or left, to discover how incredibly far off base you are in your fact-free assertions. Far
      more disturbing than your complete lack of familiarity with anything resembling
      economic reality, however, is the fact that you apparently feel better informed
      than the individual you’re responding to, to tell her what her life was “really”

      I can’t tell you what her life was really like. I can tell you that I am not female, Latina,
      or the child of immigrant parents. I am someone who has climbed across class boundaries in this country, and I can tell you that the statement that such a move is “easy” could only be uttered by someone who not only has never attempted the feat for themselves, but who doesn’t know anyone who ever has.

      While we’re discussing the view from your lofty tower of uninformed privilege, however, I’m wondering if you can clear up one last point for me. How exactly is a child of immigrant parents supposed to cross “race boundaries” in 2015 (or any other moment in history, for that matter)? Is “ethnicity reassignment surgery” now free under Obamacare?

      • newnodm

        You are very very special. It’s amazing you were able to compete with the majority of the European population who arrived with royal pedigrees, a first class education, and bags of gold.

        • First, I will observe that you know as much about my ancestry as you do about (apparently) absolutely everything else. I’m not certain why my achievements, or Idalia’s, provoke this apparent need to defend the merits of your alleged “European” ancestors, but your response is useful in that it illustrates exactly why it is so difficult for you to approximate a human reaction to another’s good. You’ve made an assumption about my ethnicity, which you know nothing about, and attempted to frame an argument based on that prejudice.

          Saying that someone (who may not look like you) has achieved something remarkable in this country is not saying something bad about the country. To acknowledge that another has had to overcome obstacles is not to imply that no-one else ever had to do so, or that their achievements are somehow now less worthy. Economic success and social progress are not a touch-down record, to be obliterated by someone else’s later efforts, and I don’t think you need to worry about European immigrants losing their place in the American story any time in this century.

          Speaking of which, I’m intrigued by your repeated appeal to “European”
          identity in attacking the GYO candidates. Is it possible that you don’t know that, as a Latina, Idalia’s ancestors are as European as yours or anyone else’s, for what that’s worth? Or is that the “wrong” part of Europe? The fact that it seems to matter so much to you is the reason I won’t be responding to you after this, by the way.

          Your Horatio Alger narrative regarding the poor European immigrants
          who helped build this country appears to be based on a sixth-grade grasp of American history. This country was founded, and developed, by a diverse group of people that included, not only the virtuous European peasant of two centuries ago whom you appear to think requires your defense, but by slaves, bankers, fanatics, rebels, aristocrats, slave-owners, scoundrels and heroes of every social and ethnic back-ground. None of their achievements, from those of Chinese laborers, Irish potato-farmers, Hispanic and Mestizo settlers, and freed slaves, to those of Native Americans, in any way cancels out the achievements of others. There is enough approval of individual sacrifice and accomplishment to go around, and the ghosts of European immigrants are not, in fact, spinning in their graves every time some non-European accomplishes something noteworthy. It’s not a competition.

          If it were, however, you would still have to be given credit for whatever it is you’ve accomplished thus far in spite of your own lack of education, self-awareness, or empathy. It can’t be easy living in a head where every other human being’s worth and achievement are somehow a threat to your own. Good luck with that.

          And my sympathies.

          • Northside

            You have proven exactly what I was trying to say in all of my comments. Why do we even consider class when a person ethnicity is like trying to measure a crashing wave with a yard stick. We have to stop being obsessed with a persons race and rather concentrate on their economic background. BTW there are PLENTY of European Immigrants’ decedents who live just as poor as an “minority”. BTW a person who is “latina” is a mix most likely a mix of White European, African (moors), Native American, and often African Slaves. I have a racist cousin and I have always wanted to get him one of those DNA tests..I would love to have him find out that he has African decedents. Actually, most scientists believe ALL humans came out of Africa. What they looked like one will every know. However, every human from the Grand Dragon of the KKK , Adolph Hitler, MLK to Malcom X , you, and I all can say we are African Americans!!!

            I think that is nice! But I still want our efforts to focus on POVERTY not skin color!!!

          • pepjrp

            Wow… you are quite a racist. You write as a very educated and talented person, but deep down, you’re a hater. Not to mention an excuse maker as well as just plain disgustingly arrogant. Not very likable at all I bet is a common theme said about you.

        • pepjrp

          Yes he is. All racists like him are…. in their mind.

    • pepjrp

      Exactly! Plus the “people of color” line is a racist term and implies that Whites are not quite the same since they have no color. They are almost invisible.

  • pepjrp

    Idalia Vasquez
    Too bad that after receiving your degree, you didn’t learn that the term…”people of color” is an offensive and racially biased term towards White people. I’m sure you didn’t mean to be racist, but it came out that way. We all have a color be it white, brown or black. That term divides the country and implies that something is not quite right with white people as they have no color. I’m guessing you will never read this, but if so, I hope you will push this saying to the wayside to join other frowned upon terms like, illegal aliens, retarded, secretary and now… anchor babies.