Why Are All the Teachers White?
I am a white teacher.
Growing up in the '80s and '90s in Brooklyn, N.Y., I do not remember having a single teacher who did not look like me. Every teacher I've ever had represented “me” in some way or another.
By virtue of being born a white child who spoke English as her first (and only) language, I was fortunate. I had my pick of mentors, my race was represented in most—if not all—curricular texts, and I excelled in school year after year. My academic fate was sealed in the most predictable of ways.
Not only were my teachers homogenously white, but in my 13 years of compulsory schooling, I do not remember being assigned a single text authored by a person of color.
Indeed, I was already at a social advantage long before my teachers even knew my name. My family and I were not tasked with learning what Lisa Delpit has famously coined the “culture of power”; as a typical neighborhood white kid, I was not ignorantly considered a cultural anomaly, nor was I a threat to the tried, “true,” and impenetrable pedagogies, practices, and policies of my teachers’ classrooms and those of the schools I attended.
My parents never, not once, not for a nanosecond, would have to worry about how my teachers and administrators chose to relate to me—or worse yet, treat me—because of my race, culture, or primary language. My parents did not have to worry about the potential for racist policies and practices to impact my outcomes.
As a white child, I would not have to endure a single micro-aggression by some adult who should have a) kept their mouth shut, and b) read a book by Lisa Delpit, bell hooks, Tim Wise, or other brilliant thinkers who have made it their life’s mission to understand how race—including whiteness and white privilege—and the dominant culture impact day-to-day life in this country and its schools.
I may have been from a working-class community, but I had it easy. The fact of the matter is that schools were set up by people who looked like me for people who looked like me. And as Motoko Rich illustrates in her recent article, “Where Are the Teachers of Color?,” despite an ever-increasing racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse student population, not much has changed in the racial makeup of the teaching force.
Different Experiences of School
Indeed, the important quest to develop more teachers of color is not new. Education leaders and researchers from a variety of camps have been asking the same questions about this for quite some time. However, it is a question that seems to skirt, if not outright ignore, the system of racialized privilege that is historically embedded in, and endemic to, the public school system writ large.
As a researcher, I study white teachers, their words, and their practices. As a university professor, I teach education courses where, most semesters, each and every one of my teacher-education students is white.
I have yet to meet a student in my college courses who did not claim to excel in school, or at the very least to do exceptionally well. My students, for the most part, fondly recall their experiences as K-12 students.
Such fondness, to be sure, is part and parcel to why students go into teaching, and it is not far-fetched to assume that they look back fondly on their experiences because schools were set up by people who look like us for people who look like us.
Current politics, initiatives, and institutionalized madness aside, is it really any wonder that we’d want to return? Indeed, most of us who desire to return to school as teachers are returning to the very institutions that have been set up to benefit us all along.
Conversely, why would historically marginalized populations elect to eventually become teachers for the very system that (likely) underserved them in some way? Why would minority populations elect to serve a system that will (likely) continue to underserve minority students if the current discourse of “accountability” has its way?
In other words, who willingly, and in their right mind, returns to a system that failed to adequately educate, represent, respect, and appropriately mentor their own student body?
An underserved schooling experience might be examined in a couple of ways. We might think about it in terms of the desperate skill-and-drill measures that Jonathan Kozol illustrated long ago, fraught measures which have been shown to impact schools inequitably.
Moreover, the guarantee of seeing your race represented positively in your daily experience, or of seeing your race reflected back at you by people in power (as with our teachers and administrators) is a core tenet of Peggy McIntosh’s iconic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
On the other hand, for your race to be underrepresented in your daily experience with others in the most meaningful of ways (e.g., while spending up to one third of your day in an educational institution surrounded by authority figures who do not look like you) is one powerful way for you to be underserved by your schooling experience.
On the curricular front, I would argue that schools’ odd, even irrational adherence to all things canonized is also an example of underserving an increasingly diverse student body. Perhaps if schools permitted their teachers to teach something other than the “required classics” from the “canon,” we might begin to scratch the surface of what it would look like to foster a culturally in-sync learning environment. A curriculum which reflects the realities of a racially and culturally diverse student body is perhaps more likely to create an environment with the potential to appeal to a more diversified teaching force.
The failure to incorporate curricular materials that, as McIntosh puts it, “testify to the existence” of racial diversity is to underserve and ignore our increasingly diverse student bodies. Perhaps if, as institutions of education, we gave some attention to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has famously coined “the danger of a single story,” we might begin to unravel the reasons why our teaching force has not kept up with the student populations we are tasked with educating for a better world.
The quest for more teachers of color involves a lot more than asking schools, programs of teacher education, and teachers to uncover personal biases. Becoming aware of your own personal biases requires, also, becoming aware of how and why school served you well. An examination of your relationship with your educational experiences, however long gone, might reveal unspoken insights into who schools invite back to become teachers, and who they continue to cast aside.