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Education Opinion

How and Why Teachers of Color Matter

By Guest Blogger — August 02, 2018 4 min read
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This week, you’ll be hearing from guest blogger, and longtime reader favorite, Heather Harding. Heather is the director of policy and public understanding at the Schusterman Foundation. Previously, she worked in various senior roles for Teach for America and the Gates Foundation. She’ll be discussing how to improve teacher quality as a tool for equity—drawing on her experiences as a scholar, reformer, and parent.

When I began teaching in 1992 in eastern North Carolina, I thought I would be great at it because I was going to teach Black children like me. Turns out I overestimated the power of a single aspect of identity being enough to make me a great teacher. I was mediocre at best. Still, the students gravitated towards me because I was young, optimistic, a Northerner (making me novel), and Black—which helped me build relationships with students with more ease than my White peers. I could leverage my status as role model. I was a walking billboard for staying the course in school. I knew most of the cultural references they threw at me—except the most Southern ones because my Midwest upbringing couldn’t teach me everything. The shared Black experience was worth a lot.

In the last few years, new research has started to confirm what scholars studying multiculturalism and culturally relevant pedagogy have been preaching for years: Schools need more educators of color if we hope to succeed with students of color. Shocker! Going further, there are benefits for all students when we diversify school-based educators. Given the impact of school desegregation on the presence of Black teachers in public schools (many were pushed out), and the more recent evidence that some teacher evaluation systems have disproportionately pushed out experienced teachers of color, there seems to be an ever-shrinking pool of Black and Latino teachers. Add to this the challenge of competing for a too-small pool of college graduates of color, especially given the compensation structure and presumed lower prestige level of educators. As a sector, we find ourselves facing a monumental challenge if we believe that increasing the diversity of the workforce will improve outcomes for all students.

Some important points that many of us already know are worth repeating:

  1. Teachers of color offer the benefit of providing shared experience and identifiable role models to all students, but particularly students of color.
  2. Teachers of color have been found to hold higher expectations for students of color. Given the impact of implicit bias on student performance, this is an important benefit that could be maximized when there are more teachers of color in schools.
  3. All students—regardless of race—have favorable perceptions of Black and Latino teachers vis-a-vis White teachers. They are perceived as more supportive and provide clearer and more useful feedback.
  4. Racially diverse schools boast a multitude of benefits including richer curricular offerings, high test scores, less bias, fewer disciplinary actions, and lower-special education referrals.

So what can be done about this? I have a couple of concrete ideas from the perspective of practitioners and parents. First, I think efforts to recruit more Black and Latino teachers are awesome, but we have to remember that a focus on recruitment means playing the long game. Funders, teacher-education programs, and policymakers have to make long-term commitments that follow recruits through program completion and into the profession. This is a 20-year endeavor, and we will not see dividends in a few years.

Second, we must register our alarm when we see racially homogenous school staffs. It should move us to question the system that produces schools where no teacher or principal of color is welcome. We should also be concerned when educators of color are such a small minority that it would be hard for them not to be tokenized. School and system leaders must integrate diversity priorities when considering teacher-quality efforts.

Third, as parents, we can demand that schools encourage diverse perspectives and teach content that reflects our values. If we don’t see a diverse teaching staff, we can ask questions about this. We can also praise progress in this area. We can point school leaders to talented adults in our communities who might serve as volunteer teachers. We can do this as White, Black, Latino, Asian, or any other ethnic identity we may represent. My own children’s school has a focus on global citizenship that reinforces and values racial and ethnic diversity that always warms my heart when I walk in the building.

This brings me back to my own teaching experience. That first year, I was largely motivated to teach because I’d had amazing Black teachers (shout out to Samella Kendricks) that changed my life trajectory. I was also an outlier because I was not the only Black teacher in the building; there were several that guided my efforts to achieve greatness. I didn’t carry the burden of having to advocate for Black students when I saw bias, because there were more experienced Black teachers in my building. I was allowed to struggle in my own practice toward developing competence, and to realize how best to leverage my unique identity to serve my students—who were largely Black in a school that was also more racially diverse than most.

Increasing the diversity of the educator workforce is an important goal that will benefit students and adults. I love the current energy and action around teacher diversity, and I’m hoping it is a serious and long-lasting trend in the work of education reform.

Heather Harding

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