We all want to relate to the people around us; it’s in our human nature. We search for qualities we have in common: hobbies, music preferences, personality traits, and the list goes on. But what do we first notice when meeting a new person? Even before we engage in conversation, physical characteristics like race and gender are recognized subconsciously in our minds. The moment we begin a conversation with someone, our commonalities bring us further together. When we speak the same language or languages, come from similar neighborhoods, cultures, backgrounds, and family structures, we start to see more aspects of ourselves in the other person.
So when a student first meets a teacher, what do you think many children and young adults will notice?
Children look up to those who educate them as mentors and role models. The mentors have the responsibility to cheer for their students’ achievements, while advocating for their needs and supporting them during setbacks. Sharing similar backgrounds through qualities like race, gender, language, or history makes it easier for an educator to provide that support to students.
For youth around the world, having someone to look up to—a person who reflects who they are on the inside and out—is important to their success. According to Anya Kamenetz, a study based in the United States found that “having just one black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade reduced low-income black boys’ probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent” (NPR). Reducing dropout rates by 39 percent is no small feat when we take into account the educational achievement gap that many minorities and low-income demographics experience. In Guatemala for example, 18.3 percent of youth will enroll in higher education, yet less than one percent of indigenous girls continue on to university.
Having a teacher with shared life experience is a valuable part of an enriching education. It’s even more important when they speak the same language that students speak at home with their families, when they have overcome similar challenges, and when they understand the cultural and social norms that their students are living within. It demonstrates to students, who previously might have been unsure of whether or not they would even stay in school, that they are capable of graduating if they dedicate themselves to that goal and seek support. It encourages the “if you can do it, so can I” attitude. The connection between teachers who mirror their students is strong because we want to be proud of who we are and where we come from. We want to watch our community, our people, and our culture grow and flourish.
At Starfish, our team of local educators and mentors is a crucial component of our success. All of our educators and mentors are indigenous Mayan women. They come from the same communities as the girls and speak the same Mayan languages as Girl Pioneers and their families. It is powerful to observe an Impact School class and witness a classroom full of indigenous girls learning from a qualified educator with the same racial identity. Educators and mentors encourage Girl Pioneers to keep moving forward, and they do so because they uniquely possess intimate knowledge of what it is like to be a young indigenous Mayan woman growing up in a rural community in Guatemala.
For Guatemalan young women, getting an education is not easy; however, same-race educators play a critical role as encourager, motivator, and advocate so they can complete their education successfully.