At a three-day human relations retreat for teachers in Malibu, Reyna Gutierrez learned how differently a group of Latino educators can see the world.
The Guatemalan-born Gutierrez, 33, had assumed that there would be few variances between herself and the other teachers. But when Latino teachers were separated from other racial groups, the conversation turned to culture.
"I used to say I was Hispanic, not Guatemalan, but I realized that [Latinos] are different," said Gutierrez of the lesson learned at last weekend's retreat, organized by the National Conference, a nonprofit human relations organization.
Gutierrez, a math teacher at South Gate High School, was one of 50 teachers from Los Angeles, Long Beach and schools as far away as San Diego and Ventura who participated in the retreat, which was funded by the Herb Alpert Foundation and the Ahmanson Foundation.
Held twice a year, the retreats are designed to help teachers better cope with the changing student demographics in Southern California classrooms, said Lecia Brooks, a National Conference program specialist and former teacher. Since many school districts do not offer teacher training on issues of race and sexual orientation, the retreat gives teachers a place to explore topics such as racial identity, Brooks said.
"We wanted them to have a safe and supportive environment to talk about the struggles of teaching students who are different from themselves," Brooks said.
For example, Brooks said that although in Los Angeles the elementary school student population is predominantly Latino, most teachers are white. But many teachers are reluctant to discuss problems that an educator might encounter with students of another ethnic group.
"Teachers are socialized to not see color and just focus in on the children," said Brooks, who taught for five years.
For Gutierrez, the retreat's lessons were particularly enlightening. During one of the retreat's group exercises, Gutierrez said she came to recognize that some of the views she held about people of other racial groups were stereotypes.
"It's really personal," Gutierrez said hesitantly of the lesson. "Because of the way I saw black people or white people. And I realized it's not always what I think."