By Monith Ilavarasan
What it takes to become a teacherUploaded: Aug 3, 2022
I recently hung out with a family friend that I’ve known forever. We both grew up together as kids in Fremont and our families would spend holidays together every year. After I moved to Pleasanton he continued to be one of my closest friends.
Ashwin is a teacher in east San Jose and I recently realized that I’ve never really asked him about his journey. Out of all my friends and family members, Ashwin is the only person who chose the path of teaching.
Over the past few years we met less and less often so I never truly understood all that he had to do in order to become a credentialed teacher. On a meandering walk through my neighborhood we finally talked about his journey.
If you were to ask him in high school or college what he wanted to do in life, being a teacher would not have been his first answer. After graduating from UCLA with a degree in political science he wanted to go into the foreign service in order to be the diplomatic face of the U.S. across the globe.
In order to be a competitive applicant for the foreign service, he got the advice that he should spend some time in the Peace Corps. In order to be a competitive applicant for the Peace Corps, he needed to show at least a year of consistent service to a community. So in the early 2010s after college he signed up for AmeriCorps,.
In his first year at AmeriCorps he was given a stipend of $17,000. He was placed in a school in East San Jose and was lucky that he could commute directly from home. Without that luxury he would have had to take out personal loans or wipe out his savings in order to sustain himself, like many of his fellow members had to do.
It was during this time that Ashwin experienced what he called “the other valley” just thirteen miles from where he grew up. The student population he was working with was 95+% eligible for free & reduced lunch, had 70% English language learners, and experienced a high level of community trauma.
In this period he realized how hard it would be to leave his teaching post after building connections with the students, teachers, and community over the past year. He doubled down and spent another year in AmeriCorps in the same school. After that year he signed up for a third year in AmeriCorps, this time working with a school in east Oakland.
After all of that, it finally struck him that maybe he had a passion for teaching. He felt at home being a part of a loving community with his students, their families, and teachers.
He committed to a two year program at San Jose State which afforded him a multiple subject teaching credential and a Masters of Art in Education. His thesis was around how to tailor education to a population that deals with trauma. Children in neighborhoods similar to the one he served in exhibit symptoms of PTSD at twice the rate of military veterans. It is called C-PTSD (Complex PTSD) because the threat is ongoing in their lives.
After graduating the program, he finally got into a full time job at a school in East San Jose, the same district he first joined as an AmeriCorps member. When he reflects on his journey, he constantly talks about the privilege he’s had. His parents have a stable home and supported him deeply on his journey.
Other people in his program did not have that luxury. The costs of working an unpaid residency during grad school or taking out thousands of dollars in personal debt was untenable for many. If you are talented and driven enough to pursue teaching, there are many other professions out there that require much less out of you, pay much more, and give you the ability to raise a family.
When we talk about what he loves most, he talks about the joy of being around kids who are open minded and committed to justice. He relates “Kids in general want things that are fair, things to be done right”. He’s able to talk to people everyday who aren’t jaded by the world as it is, and instead can imagine the world as it could be. He’s able to give them the tools in order to shape the world to be more just.
Ashwin’s journey of becoming a teacher isn’t entirely typical. However, the deep desire to care for and support the next generation is deeply embedded in those who choose the profession. The rising cost of education and rent coupled with stagnant wages make it increasingly difficult for those with this innate passion to pursue a career guiding our next generation.