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Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: Teachers Of Color Can ‘Broaden Student Perspectives’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 10, 2015 11 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

This week’s “question-of-the-week” is:

What impact can having more teachers of color have on our schools & what needs to be done to make it happen?

I’ve shared background in the previous two posts in this series, so won’t repeat it all again here.

Part One’s responses came from scholar/educator/researchers Gloria Ladson-Billings, Travis J. Bristol, and Terrenda Corisa White. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation with Professor Ladson-Billings at my BAM! Radio Show.

Part Two’s contributions come from teachers Antoine Germany, James Pale, Dominique Williams and Evelyn Ramos; and from student Jacquelin Estrada. They all spend their days at the school where I teach, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California.

This one-time “experiment” of sharing multiple responses from members of our school’s campus community continues today. Teacher Ya Po Cha, teacher Elizabeth Villanueva, student teacher Billy William Ivy, biligual aide Alma Avalos, and student Amanda Martinez provide their thoughts on the topic. In addition, I include comments from readers.

Response From Ya Po Cha

Ya Po Cha is a first generation Hmong immigrant from Laos. He teaches Hmong language as a world language at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He is author of An Introduction to Hmong Culture:

From the day I first entered a classroom to the day I received my Master’s Degree in education, I have had 25 years of formal education under my belt. All that time, the instructors, the instructions and education had been all but Hmong. So, I wouldn’t know what it is like to be taught by a Hmong teacher or professor.

I am one of the very first Hmong teachers to teach in an American public school. My career as a school teacher began in a science classroom at Luther Burbank High School (LBHS) in Sacramento, California. LBHS is an urban school that is diverse as any high school can be, with 30% of the student population being Hmong.

Since I started teaching, the response I received from the Hmong community has been exceptional. As a teacher, I have been able to build great rapport with Hmong students and earned their respect. Sometimes, when issues with Hmong students or parents come up, administrators would call on me to help resolve them.

For the last ten years or so, I have been teaching Hmong as a world language (AKA foreign language) full-time. Most of my classes are all Hmong students. It has been an incredible experience. I can only see it from my perspective as a teacher, but I would assume that my students have enjoyed the same level of excitement, value and learning that I have experienced. Overall, Hmong students are easy to work with, but I believe that I have influenced Hmong students in ways that teachers of other ethnicities would ordinarily not have been able to do.

So, having more teachers of color in our schools is probably a good thing. It is especially important to have the color and background of the teachers being similar to those of the students. Of course, a quality teacher with a passion to teach will undoubtedly benefit our students more than a lousy teacher of the same color and background as the targeted students.

I cannot tell teachers, administrators and district personnel what to do to bring teachers of color to their campuses, but I know how I got here. First of all, my relatives and friends’ children attend this school, and I wanted to be here to help make it better. In addition, our administrators have actively recruited teachers of color during the time I have been here.

Response From Elizabeth Villanueva

Elizabeth Villanueva has been a Spanish teacher at Burbank for eleven years:

When asked if I could respond to this question, I reflected upon it for two weeks. This query took me back to when I first arrived in California at age17. I did not speak any English. It evoked a memory of one of my first teachers who I felt made an impact on me. She was my English teacher, an older woman not of color, who always made an effort to communicate with me. She seemed to always make the lesson understood. She was passionate about her subject and was dedicated to helping her students speak and understand English.

As an educator, I believe that having more teachers of color in our schools does not necessarily mean that they will have an impact on our students’ education. Teaching and learning goes well beyond color or physical appearance. It is more about the human perspective and the universal experience. Having teachers who love and who are interested in their subject matter creates a greater impact on students’ learning and generates an educational atmosphere. Teachers with conviction in their subject and who are eager to teach what they believe in can more easily make a connection with their students and transmit that desire to learn. Then learning becomes reciprocal.

I love teaching Spanish, not because it is my first language, but because I feel a strong connection to the subject, its culture, literature, music, grammar, and all its other aspects. This connection is the motivation that extends to the students as well as beyond the classroom. It motivates me, as a teacher, to reach out to parents and to keep them abreast of their student’s academic progress and education. If a teacher has that motivation from within and brings it to the classroom, it will enhance the learning experience of the student and create a stronger link to every aspect of their lives. Having teachers of color is important; however, what is more important is to have teachers with fervor in their field of study.

Response From Billy William Ivy

Billy William Ivy is a student teacher at Luther Burbank High School:

My sixth-grade history teacher, Mr. Braxton, was the second male teacher I had up to that point. Upon entering the classroom I remember how excited I was because, not only was he a man, he was Black. I literally never saw a Black teacher before, and unfortunately never saw another until I reached college. I cannot remember whether he was a good teacher or if I learned anything from him, but I know I enjoyed being in his presence for that one simple reason.

Yes, I am a Black man. I look like many of my previous and current students, but I cannot definitively say that the color of my skin has made an impact on them. However, the color of my skin has enabled me to speak to many of my Black students in a manner that only a Black person can.

One example of this was during my first teaching job when I sat my group of Black male students down and spoke to them about the challenges they will face while negotiating the “real world.” Challenges like being accused of stealing in the self check out line of grocery stores because I often opt to leave without a bag, getting passed over for promotions, and getting pulled over multiple times when my car was new. I was able to speak to this group about my experiences, which many in-service teachers are not privy to. I am also able to relate with some of my students of color because I understand how it feels when singled out by a teacher or administrator. I strive to never project such a feeling on my students, and I make that clear. To that end, lines of teacher-student communication are opened that may otherwise not exist if it were not for my skin color. Such shared experiences and open lines of communication with students informs a more productive classroom.

I am the only Black man (along with two Black women) in Sacramento State’s single-subject teacher credential program. Sadly, this came as no surprise. In order to alleviate such disparities, university credential programs must seek candidates where people of color are; Ethnic-Studies departments, Black fraternities and sororities, and on-campus clubs with members of color. Representatives should also be actively recruiting on high school campuses similar to Burbank.

Response From Alma Avalos

Alma Avalos is a Bilingual aide at Burbank High School:

Throughout my educational years I have always been very fortunate to have great teachers in my life. All my teachers have been exceptional models and have taught me many things that have helped me in life. I started college with the mentality that I wanted to be a news writer but by being surrounded by great teachers I realized that what I really wanted to do was teach.

I currently am a Bilingual Teacher Assistant at Luther Burbank high school and I work with English Learners both adolescents and adults. I really believe it makes a huge difference when the one teaching the students is someone with the same skin color or can simply relate to them. Being a Latina and growing up in a traditional Mexican household, I have learned that when it comes to reaching success we sometimes feel that because of our skin color we cannot reach success like the rest.

I remember my mother would always be hesitant when coming to my school for parent conferences because she knew it would be some trouble before she got someone to translate for her, which has made her think our people could never be as successful as the people working in the front office. I tend to always share my success stories to my students because I want them to see that they too can reach success. I do my best in understanding students and always keeping an open mind when listening to students of other race, color and gender. I strongly believe that any teacher with the willingness to be understanding and open minded with their students will be able to make a difference in a student’s life.

Response from Amanda Martinez

Amanda Martinez is a senior at Luther Burbank High School:

More teachers of color can broaden students’ perspectives and awaken their respect for other cultures. Adding color to schools brings cultural understanding, appreciation and has the potential of building significant relationships that can make our schools comforting and welcoming to all.

I’ve had the opportunity to go to a school of no diversity and a school that is a melting pot. Immediately I noticed a huge difference in academics, the environment of the school and its inhabitants. The school with most of its population being Caucasian had higher academics but poor social interactions and relationships. It was as if everyone was on a “fend for yourself” mode. This made me very uncomfortable and pushed me to move. I searched for somewhere that would help me blossom and share my roots with. I wanted to be with other minorities like myself.

At Luther Burbank high school I found what I was looking for. Here everyone has an interesting and unique story and culture to bring. Teachers also relate to us because more than likely they have walked the same path we are walking through. This brings all of us together in a friendly and productive classroom setting where every single student can flourish. A lot of times when students are struggling teachers are there to help us and give advice or simply listen to us. This has helped me a lot because when I was going through a lot of personal problems that affected me and my school work a teacher has always been there for me. They have shown me that no matter how muddy, rocky, or rough the path I walk through gets, I’ll make it out alive and I’ll be successful.

Responses From Readers


There is one empirical article that does provide evidence that same race teachers are effective with students with whom they share a background. This includes African American and white teachers. The complete study was published in a National Bureau of Economic Research publication. A shorter version appears in Education Next entitled “The Race Connection: Are teachers more effective with students who share their ethnicity?” The author of both is Thomas S. Dee.

Thanks to Ya Po, Elizabeth, Bill, Alma and Amanda, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for the next “question-of-the-week” in a few days....

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.