THE BLOG
05/16/2016 11:38 am ET Updated May 17, 2017

Teaching the Power of Diversity in the Classroom has the Power to Change Lives

Our Inspired2Educate program celebrating and honoring our nation's educators is now entering its third month. We are thrilled to have received more than 100 stories from educators across the country about the teacher, administrator, or staff member who first sparked their interest in education.

While every story we've received is unique in its detail and approach, a common thread has appeared in all of the submissions we've received: to truly inspire, educators must connect with their students in a respectful, relatable way. Whether this is done by identifying shared cultures or interests, or by finding a unique way to engage students in the lesson at hand, each and every story highlights an educator who went the extra mile to reach out, relate, ask questions, and care.

This month's recognized story is no exception.

Ms. Elizabeth Ramos Torres, a high school math teacher in Parker, Colorado, candidly shared her struggle as a young student from an immigrant family who was often ostracized by her peers for speaking Spanish and embarrassed by the fact that her parents could not communicate in English. She told of the heartache that followed her around from classroom to classroom, as she dreamt of being anyone but herself.

"I hated who I was and wanted to be another person," Ms. Torres wrote in her story. "I was ashamed of my language, culture, and everything that was related to my Hispanic heritage."

That is, until she entered Mrs. Vasquez's fourth-grade classroom. There, she discovered a teacher who looked like her and spoke like her. And through Mrs. Vasquez's encouragement, she soon learned more about the power of diversity, her lineage and culture, and also mastered the English language. "It was through being a student with Mrs. Vasquez that I realized that I had a rich cultural heritage and history to celebrate. She helped me to realize that I was Native American and Spanish. She also helped me to gain pride in my family, my heritage, and myself," she said. "Mrs. Vasquez essentially helped me to stop hating myself. She also planted the seed of education into my soul."

What her story highlights is how one person -- educator, mentor, or friend -- can provide an example, engender trust, and open the door to becoming the best version of ourselves. It also underscores the deep importance of bringing diversity education and celebration into the classroom.

John Etzell, Head of School for Colorado Early Colleges Douglas County, said he believes it's more important today than ever to tell Ms. Torres' story. "She has worked very hard to get where she is in her life and she works very hard with her students," he said. "She is definitely a role model for young students."

To learn more, I reached out to Ms. Torres to hear about her current role as a teacher and the woman who inspired her to be there.

Mrs. Vasquez inspired you to begin a career in education, and you are now teaching high school math. Tell us more about how she continues to inspire what you do in the classroom every day.

Like Mrs. Vasquez, I used to teach fourth-graders and did many of the same things she used to do. For example, in her grade book, if you had a rough day, she would call you up, point to your name, and put a little check mark by your name. You don't want the check mark. She also had a grab bag of small prizes students could earn every Friday if they performed well and were on good behavior. These are effective tools to motivate students to do their best, and they worked just as well when I used them many years later.

On a bigger scale, like Mrs. Vasquez, I make an effort to connect with every student that comes into my classroom. Children are children and, no matter where they come from or what kind of experiences they have, they need us. You could come from a very affluent family but never see your mom and dad because they're always traveling on business. That child, that young adult, needs their teacher in the same way an impoverished child would, or a middle-class child would, because they're all going through changes. I learned from Mrs. Vasquez the importance of creating a safe and comforting environment where students can be themselves, have fun, be challenged, and learn.

You mentioned how impactful it was to have a teacher who you identified with. Can you tell us more about that?

I was a child with low self-esteem and I was often embarrassed of my family because they couldn't speak English, and I didn't want them at the school plays or anything. I didn't believe in myself and I wasn't proud of who I was. Being with Mrs. Vasquez finally helped me break that internalized low self-esteem that I had.

I finally saw a teacher that looked like me, and I knew that I could do it. It was one of the first times in my life where I saw a role model in a position of leadership, and that was a Hispanic person that was bilingual and proud, and wasn't embarrassed to be who they were.

And that inspired you to begin a career in education?

Seeing a bilingual, Hispanic teacher -- someone just like me -- made me realize that I could follow in her footsteps and also go to college and become a teacher. I remember being in her fourth-grade classroom and thinking, "I could do this someday. I will do this someday. Nobody is going to stop me."

What would you say to encourage a young person who might be considering a career in education?

Education is a tool that will empower anybody, no matter where you come from. If you're a first-generation college student, if you're a legacy college student, education is going to be the key and the way. If we want to see social and positive changes in our country to empower ourselves as a nation, we need to invest in education, and that means some of us need to dedicate our lives -- or a portion of our careers, at least -- to education.

So, I'd ask people to strongly consider impacting the next generation through teaching, whether it be at elementary school, middle school, high school, or college. We need good role models for our kids and that's how it's going to get done -- by going back and giving back to our communities, one classroom at a time.

Kermit S. Randa is chief executive officer of PeopleAdmin, the leader in cloud-based talent management solutions for education and government. He has twenty years of executive experience leading firms in the software industry.