By Mc Nelly Torres
When Daniel Piña looks at his students, he sees innocence and a thirst for knowledge.
“Who’s out of shape?” asks Daniel Piña, an economics teacher at Kennedy High School who also coaches baseball there. He raised his hand to indicate he, too, was out of shape.
Piña also sees a reflection of himself 10 years ago when he was a Kennedy High School senior.
Now that Piña teaches at his old high school, he tells his students that education is their ticket out of poverty.
“If there’s something that I want you to learn from this class, it is to be self-educated, always be a student of life,” he told his students the first day of the spring semester.
Teachers are often drawn to the school districts with the best working conditions and salaries. Yet educators say teachers whose history is rooted in the community have an unmatched relationship with their students. Teachers like Piña bring insight into the culture and the challenges that students in poor schools face every day.
But these teachers are hard to find, said Michéle Foster, an educational consultant and professor of education at the Claremont Graduate School in California.
“People trust them and respect them,” Foster said. “They are better able to understand the dynamics of the community without misreading people.”
Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin, agrees.
“These teachers make a huge difference in the classroom because they have a cultural interest while other teachers had no knowledge or interest,” Ladson-Billings said, noting that students are more likely to see the teachers with local roots as role models.
In Piña’s classroom in the Edgewood School District, posters of Latin American guerrilla leader Ché Guevara, farm workers organizer César Chávez, Black Muslim icon Malcolm X, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy pepper the walls. Singer-songwriter John Lennon rules from atop the whiteboard.
And music is a constant. Reflecting Piña’s eclectic taste, reggae could be playing when students arrive, followed by Tejano, rock or merengue.
“Music is all about history,” Piña told his students as Maná played in the background.
It’s just one of the ways Piña keeps his high school students alert. He changes the classroom seats constantly. He asks personal questions.
“How many siblings do you have? Did your parents attend schools in Edgewood?” he asked his class on the first day of the second semester.
The questions might seem intrusive. But he says they have a purpose ˜ to understand students’ backgrounds so he can teach them effectively.
“I don’t give my students any computer-type assignments because most of my students don’t have computers at home,” he said.
His mission is to liberate his students through education, yet he is tough and demanding.
“I’m not here to worry about pleasing you,” he told his advanced placement economics students, “just to educate you.”
During the first day of class, the 28-year-old teacher shared a slice of his own life to draw a parallel to his students’ lives.
He planned to become a civil rights attorney and became a teacher by accident.
A product of a broken home, he lived with his father, who graduated with Kennedy’s first graduating class. He then lived with his grandmother after his father’s second marriage failed.
His desire to empower minority students led him into student council while attending Southwest Texas State University.
Piña earned a bachelor’s degree in English and political science and a master’s degree in advanced legal studies.
He worked as a legal researcher for a San Antonio law firm, but didn’t find it fulfilling, and applied to teach at three school districts. Edgewood offered him a job.
Three years ago, he returned to Kennedy determined to motivate and lead young minds.
“He is a fair teacher,” said Kennedy Principal Norma Cavazos. “He cares about the students, but he doesn’t attempt to be their buddy. He has pride in the community (where) he was raised.”
Students admire his style.
Melody Arevalo, an 18-year-old senior, said Piña’s passion for teaching comes through.
“Not all teachers are like that,” she said.
Less competitive salaries, lack of parental involvement and poor working conditions are reasons that skilled teachers give for leaving poor districts, a recent analysis by Education Week found.
A third of teachers in such settings reported dissatisfaction with their pay. In wealthier schools or those with fewer minority students, 46 percent of teachers said they were happy with their pay.
“The first five years are crucial, and if (schools) have poor conditions, no support and low pay, (teachers will) leave,” said J.B. Richeson, president of the San Antonio Teachers Council.
Research shows that when teachers have a strong support system, better working conditions and a sense of community, they stay.
“It is like everything else. You have to love what you are doing or you’ll be miserable,” said Alicia Hernandez, a first-grade teacher in the San Antonio School District, who lives in neighboring Edgewood.
When Hernandez began teaching in the 1960s, she had 42 children in the classroom and earned $5,400 a year. This year, the starting base salary for a teacher was $36,000 in her school district. In Edgewood, it was $34,500.
Hernandez, a 39-year veteran teacher, said salary was not the sole reason she stayed in the district.
Some young teachers are attracted to the challenges they understand so well.
“I had a teacher who played a big role when I was a student in South San School District, so I’m here to pay back the community,” said René Flores, a 29-year-old science teacher in the Southwest School District.
In the third week of one of Pina’s classes, students turned in weekly summaries of newspaper articles about economic issues. The week before, students watched the “Wizard of Oz,” and Piña encouraged them to look for the movie’s hidden economic meaning.
Then students made class presentations where they listed their needs and wants, using magazine and newspaper clippings. Some filled the posters with clothing, makeup, shoes and jewelry. One student showed a poster with few pictures, noting that she has no needs, but wants to help people overcome social injustices.
Piña listened attentively, posing questions to divide needs from desires.
“This is economic propaganda. Advertisers tell you that you need this stuff,” he said. “They dictate what you need, so the wants become the needs because you want them so much.”
Piña tries to prepare fun, interesting lessons, yet he sometimes has to key off student reactions and improvise.
“I love my job, and I know I was put here for a reason,” he said.