Widgets Magazine


Break barriers through teaching

This year is a big one for our country. As we choose our new leader, we’ll prepare to say goodbye to our current Commander in Chief. This cycle is nothing new – but the legacy this particular president will leave behind represents a historic first for our country.

If you ask today’s kindergarteners to describe what a president looks like, they’ll be the first in our history to mention black skin. That’s the America I’m proud of – but also one that still has so much more work to do. The systems that prevented a black person from becoming president for more than two hundred years continue to hold back children of color every day. While at Stanford, I began to understand these systems more clearly. I volunteered with the Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE) group, mentoring middle school girls in East Palo Alto. Our girls were smart and energetic and excited to build relationships with young women in college. It was a delight to spend time with them every week.

The experience, though, opened my eyes to the difference in educational opportunities based on income and family status.  My younger sister was the same age as the girls I mentored. She attended a private school with bright and inviting classrooms, computers and lots of books. The girls I mentored learned in classrooms with far fewer resources, without books or technology. The realities of poverty in America that I had learned about in Professor Michael Rosenfeld’s sociology classes and Professor Larry Bobo’s Race and Crime in America class were playing out before my eyes. I couldn’t get over the injustice of it. Because my parents could afford it, my sister and I had much more access to educational opportunities than my WYSE girls did. I decided to join Teach For America to try to help close this glaring opportunity gap.

Teaching was tough – the hardest thing I’ve done, but the relationships I built with my students made it well worth it. During my third year in the classroom, I taught third grade at an all-boys school.  Managing twenty-six boys was a challenge, and I often felt I wasn’t good enough for my kids. But my boys grew by leaps and bounds and were all ready for fourth grade at the end of the year. Last year, I was able to attend their eighth grade graduation. I hadn’t seen my kids in five years, but watching them cross the stage filled me with so much pride. They have all become brilliant, hard-working and kind young men. Despite the barriers they faced growing up in poverty, they are all off to great high schools up and down the East Coast and bright futures. I’ve continued working in schools because I want that for every student.

Knowing kids like my boys can dream about becoming president and know without a doubt it’s a possibility for people who look like them thrills me. But before they can be president, they need access to a great education. They need safe streets and communities. They need quality health care, justice from the legal system and support as they work toward their dreams.

Making that happen for every black and brown child in this country will take time and hard work from a slew of people of all backgrounds working in all sectors. Complex systems of oppression take decades to break down, and no single person can do it alone.

But what each and every one of us can do is be a leader and advocate for our children. When I was growing up, I was incredibly lucky to have parents and teachers who advocated for me. As the only black student in my classes and sometimes in my schools, they made sure I felt included and heard and saw stories of people who looked like me. My colleagues and I try to do the same for all of our students, and the effect it has on kids’ confidence, achievement and ability in and out of the classroom is undeniable.

Some say Obama’s presidency is proof that our work is over. But the truth is that it’s just begun. The next barrier-breaking presidents are sitting in American classrooms right now. Let’s make sure they’re ready to lead us into the future.

– Tiffany Alvarez Smith


Tiffany Alvarez Smith is a 2007 alum of Stanford and Teach For America –New York City. She is the Director of School Support at Achievement Network in Syracuse, New York.