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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.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Education Suffers’ Without More Teachers Of Color

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 08, 2015 13 min read
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(This is Part Two in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One 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?

As I explained in Part One, in light of the killings of African-American youth in Ferguson, Cleveland, and elsewhere, the issue of recruiting and retaining teachers of color has drawn more attention. Some groups and individuals have been working on that challenge for quite awhile, and others have taken note of it more recently. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m in the latter category. Here are links where you can read more about the concrete work of organizations and public bodies like Educolor, the Boston Public Schools, and the Montgomery County Schools. You can read about these efforts and others at the recent Education Week column, We Need Teachers Of Color, and in a collection of other articles I’ve “curated.

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 and Part Three in this series are going to be a little different from past posts in this column. Usually, I invite educators from a wide geographical area to respond to questions. Today and next week, however, though I’ll certainly be sharing comments from a broad-range of readers, guest contributors will all be either teachers, student teachers, aides or students from the school where I teach, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. I thought it had the potential to be a particularly profound personal and professional development opportunity for all of us in our school community and, perhaps, offer some insights to others.

I think Burbank is an extraordinary school, led by Ted Appel, an exceptional principal. We are a one-hundred percent free lunch school, with a student population almost entirely composed of young people of color. Out of 102 teachers, 25 are teachers of color; three out of our six counselors are people of color.

Today’s contributions come from teachers Antoine Germany, James Pale, Dominique Williams and Evelyn Ramos; and from student Jacquelin Estrada.

Response From Antoine Germany

Antoine Germany is an English teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento:

I have been fortunate to have seen, worked with and been taught by some exceptionally talented teachers of all races and genders. However, I had never been taught by an African American teacher, and in particular, an African American male teacher till I went to college. I was fortunate to go to a historically black college where everyone, from the janitor to the professors were black. It was an eye opening experience for me and it highlights what it means to a person of color to be instructed by a man of color. I can recall never having seen, in person, men of color of great intellect, wit, sophistication or grace till I was already a young adult in college. Black men in my own experience and in popular culture were either athletes or underachievers and seeing men with advanced degrees taught me in large measure what manhood was.

I had an instant rapport with these professors because they had similar experiences as I had, spoke the language as I did, had a common belief and similar world views as I did. These men and women could motivate me in ways that others might not have because they were an embodiment of my ideals and because they shared a common ancestry and origins with me. This connection led me to believe I could attain a measure of success as well.

I believe that education suffers when more voices, faces and cultures are not present in front of the classroom not only because it gives students an opportunity to have an experience similar to mine but because it does not allow pedagogical discussions to be broad enough to encompass underserved populations. I think an overreliance on standardized tests, low pay, and a lack of imagination are some of the reasons more minorities are not in K-12 education.

I think outreach to minorities at an early age to get into education is critical, alternative teacher training programs are vital and in insistence that minority students be held to high standards are essential to seeing more people of color in education in the future.

I’ll never forget when my 4th grade teacher told my mother during a parent teacher conference that I would “never be more than a C student.” Her expectations of me probably influenced her instruction of me in her class that year. How would I have fared if that teacher, and all my other teachers had thought and expected me to be a physician, a politician or a lawyer? I don’t know the answer to that but I do remember sending that teacher an invitation to my college graduation.

Response From James Pale

James Pale has been a teacher and football coach at his alma mater, Luther Burbank High School,for a long time. He is happily married and the proud father of two:

When first asked this question, I was a bit apprehensive about answering it. I have been a football coach for about 15 years, and a teacher for about 10. As odd as it sounds, I really never thought about my impact as a “teacher of color.” I mean, I do realize that I am an ethnic “minority,” and do know that teachers of color are still a small percentage of the teaching profession. There are a few teachers sprinkled in at most public schools I have seen, and a few in administrative roles. I only need to go to a department meeting to see how grossly underrepresented minorities are in my subject area.

I have worked at my alma mater for 98% of my teaching career, and sometimes I wonder if my actually being from this geographical area helps me connect with my students more than me being of color. My experience with navigating through the educational system is something I often share with my students. I share that I faced similar struggles growing up in this neighborhood, and also share little things I’ve learned along the way to help me find a little success. I am living proof that education helped me realize my goal of becoming an educator. They see that the system can work. I might look like some of my students, but sometimes I think that being from here carries more weight than my ethnicity.

I am a Tongan. We have a number of Polynesian students at our school. Being Tongan has definitely helped me get my foot in the door faster as far as getting to know our kids. With this group, I find that I can push a little harder at times...mostly because somewhere down the line, I personally know an aunt, uncle, parent, or sometimes even grandparent.

More teachers of color might open up an opportunity for more children to identify with their teachers and let their walls down too. But it seems to me that besides this initial “natural” icebreaker, I believe that you still have to be a good teacher and even better person to reach your students. I have seen awesome white teachers connect with students and inspire them to become great adults. I have seen teachers of color leave here frustrated...never to return.

In order to have more teachers of color positively affecting our kids, I think a few things have to happen. The first thing that has to happen is to pay teachers what they deserve. Of all the perceptions about teaching (most of which are false), the most disturbing one is true--teachers are grossly underpaid. This will forever not only keep talented people away, but also perpetuate a negative image of teachers. Teachers of color will continue to leave the profession because they cannot make ends meet with a teacher’s salary. The next thing that would have to happen would be to have more alternative credentialing programs. It is extremely difficult for college graduates to get into teaching if they didn’t do their credential program during their undergraduate studies. When they realize all of the extra classes and red tape they must get through to become teachers, they give up altogether.

Response From Dominique Williams

Dominique Williams teaches Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School:

Being impactful requires educators to be conscious of perpetually engaging critical pedagogies and social justice education. The effect is two-fold: for stakeholders (students and parents) and for educators. For students, there is identifying with teachers of color and seeing people who look like them as professionals; for parents there are relatable interactions and advocacy.

As a teacher I have had the privilege and responsibility to share my own narrative with my students as a Black woman who has had similar experiences with them both when I was their age and as an adult. That relatable interaction is extended when I call home to speak to parents for both praise and chastisement--I can communicate that I am advocating not just for “my” student or “their” child, but for our children in our community.

The second part of this impact is possible among the colleagues of educators of color. It includes awareness that students not only see themselves (and other people of color) in the curriculum but how. We must ensure that when students see people who look like them they are affirmed and empowered by what they see. Teachers of color can impact schools by challenging colleagues and administrators against subconscious racism while advocating for policies to meet the needs of students of color. This involves understanding cultural differences and incorporating genuine, on-going inclusion.

To make this impact possible, more students of color need to graduate from universities with the education necessary to become a teacher. When they are there (and they are) those institutions need to target and recruit them to be future teachers and critical pedagogues and prepare them for urban education where they are both needed and can be most impactful. There also needs to be a pipeline of paraprofessionals of color in education that prepares them to transition to classroom instruction. Universities need to recruit these classified paraprofessionals (with familiar life and work experience in their communities) to become classroom teachers.

Response From Evelyn Ramos

Evelyn Ramos grew up in an immigrant family that worked in agriculture on the Sacramento Delta. She has been teaching Social Science for seven years at Luther Burbank High School:

Teachers of color like myself, and some of my colleagues, can have a profound impact on a school (especially in an urban institution). We, like the many students of color that enter our classrooms, grew up with many of the cultural nuances, routines, traditions, and heartbreaking experiences that sometimes make and accompany our identities. Although I firmly believe that ANY teacher (regardless of color) can make the choice to have a culturally responsive classroom, teachers of color have lived in that culture, and, most powerfully, still are. Essentially, parallel worlds come together in the classroom. It’s a situation that students of color, like me growing up, rarely experience in institutionalized education. This helps to create an environment where home identities don’t necessarily have to be left at home. What is important to them outside of the classroom can, in fact, still be important to them inside of the classroom. Their identity does not have to be a conflict, or “in the closet” at school. It can actually help them relate to others and give them confidence in a society that might sap that from them. As educators, we all know the never-ending benefits of a confident young person.

Although I myself am a Brown Latina, I have also noticed that my students who come from different cultural experiences from mine respect and appreciate when I share about my family customs, or throw out some Spanish here and there. It is as though my cultural pride, my choosing to embrace my color and background gives “permission” for the students to do the same.

Despite some slight growth, the number of teachers from diverse backgrounds remains low. Really, is that surprising? Why should students of color aspire for a career in a world that has not embraced their world? And, in relation to academic content, why should they be attracted to a place that, generally, does not address the obstacles, injustices, and great achievements of people of color? Finally, as much research has shown, just being a teacher of color is not enough for our urban students. Effective teachers of color, who build skills, strive for great classroom management, and collaborate with both colleagues and families are what students of color need, as well. To produce more effective teachers of color, we need to produce effective schools that not only honor the backgrounds of all students, but have living examples of that via teachers of color. We are the testament, the proof.

Response From Jacquelin Estrada

Jacquelin Estrada is a student at Luther Burbank High School:

I think every teacher no matter what color, race, or gender does the best they can in teaching all students. I have had a great experience with all my teachers here at Luther Burbank high school. In the beginning of school I thought it would be very difficult learning English because some of the teachers didn’t speak Spanish but I noticed how helpful they were with me since the day I arrived to this country.

Having teachers of of the same color has benefited me because I think they are able to understand me a lot more. I think a teacher who understands me will be able to motivate me more. Although sometimes it is hard to communicate with my teacher I know that they understand me and will try to find ways to help me. Also I feel more motivated to learn English and finish school when I see someone of the same color as me. It gives me hope that I too can finish school. I really like when teachers try to speak Spanish and are patient with me while I am learning English. Teachers here at Luther Burbank High school make me feel welcome and accepted in this country.

Thanks to Antoine, James, Dominique, Evelyn and Jacquelin 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. I’ll be including contributions from readers in Part Three.

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.

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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 Part Three 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.