It is that time of year again, with parents, teachers and students preparing for the first day of school. As a teacher, I am excited for a new year with new beginnings: new students, new parents and this year, a new school.
However, while most students and teachers wait with anticipation for school to start, some of us, particularly teachers and students of color, also have anxiety about how the school year will go. Along with freshly waxed floors and the smell of newly sharpened pencils, there are looks of judgment and lowered expectations.
Being one of very few teachers of color in Minnesota, and the only African-American teacher in my school, is difficult and sometimes lonely. My colleagues often expect that I should understand and speak for all of our students and educators who are black. As someone who is passionate about cultural competency, it often feels like I am the only one talking about race and culture, which makes many white people feel uncomfortable.
I observe interactions between students and teachers and wonder:
Would these interactions be better if educators did more to take into consideration each student’s culture, neighborhood or upbringing?
I once shared my observations with a colleague, and was told, simply, “That has nothing to do with it. That’s not it.”
Increasing Teacher Cultural Competency
The lack of teachers of color or teachers with cultural competency is a real problem. I have witnessed teachers use their power and authority to challenge students in ways that further escalate situations.
I saw a teacher correct a student by standing face to face with her and wagging her finger in the student’s face. The student responded by yelling profanities and was sent out of the room. In the student’s neighborhood, what the teacher did would have been considered an act of provocation. I believe such escalations can be avoided if teachers considered each student’s background.
Both staff and students benefit when teacher diversity increases. For staff, more teachers of color would bring diversity of ideas and viewpoints to our schools, challenging the typical norms based around white, middle-class values. Collaboration, which I’ve seen to be richer among diverse communities, would move our practices and schools forward.
Research shows students benefit from having teachers of color serve as positive role models. Students have improved school experiences when they are with teachers who look like them and who may understand their cultural experiences. This understanding leads many students of color to great academic gains. When teachers look like the students they serve, particularly in diverse school districts, there are fewer suspensions and a greater number of students who pursue advanced coursework, like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. Having teachers that look like them signals to students of color that they actually belong in the schools that were not created for them.
It’s not just students of color that benefit from having teachers of color; white students see great benefits, too. A recent article from The Atlantic outlines these benefits, which include getting white students to think about social issues that may otherwise be able to ignore.
Preparing and Supporting Teachers of Color
Some people might say that we do not just need more teachers of color but that we need more effective teachers, and I agree. We do need more effective teachers. But because teacher diversity is important for both educators and students, we must do more to recruit, prepare and support teachers of color. When my experience as the only teacher of color makes me feel isolated, then teachers like me are less likely to stay in the teaching field.
It’s time for Minnesota teacher preparation institutions to get serious about recruiting and retaining more teachers of color, including supporting them after graduation. If these institutions begin shifting their focus from inputs such as credits earned for cultural competency coursework and move toward a system that actually transforms the mindsets and skills of future educators, we may begin to see what culturally responsive teaching actually looks like in the classroom.
As parents send their students back to school this year, I hope they will remember that there are many teachers and students that are not excited about the isolation that they feel as people of color in an education system that has made it quite clear they do not belong. And remember that we can do something about that, by diversifying and changing that system.