I will never forget the moment last year when a seventh-grade African American student came to my door and said, “Mr. Taylor, I just wanted to stop by and say hello, and I want to be like you when I grow up!”
“What makes you say that?” I asked her.
“You are a great teacher, a great man, a leader, and people like you. Your class is fun, and I wish you were my music teacher this year. I want to inspire people like you do, because you inspire me.” As my eyes began to tear up, I thanked her. At a time when I was close to quitting teaching, those words were especially important.
It was my second year as a middle school music teacher, and I felt defeated, drained and alone. Due to low staff attendance and a lack of substitutes at my school, I was constantly losing my prep period to cover colleagues’ classrooms. As a Black male teacher, I felt excluded from decision-making that affected my students. I felt left out of conversations about school culture and what students of color need to succeed.
I had already struggled just to become a teacher. In order to get certified in Pennsylvania, teachers have to pass the Praxis test, which has been called out for racial bias. It took me five times to pass the Praxis. In order to afford all the retakes, I shoveled strangers’ driveways, worked a plethora of odd jobs, and even skipped meals some days to save money.
On the day my former student spoke with me, I had been wondering whether it had all been worth it, whether I could make it in the classroom, and whether I was even making a difference.
In that moment, this young person saw everything positive about me that I forgot to see within myself. Her words gave me the confidence to believe in myself and see the impact that I can have on my students as a Black male teacher.
I am now in my third year of teaching. As a member of Teach Plus Pennsylvania’s teacher policy advisory board, I am advocating for policy changes to create a teaching force that looks like America. Through weekly therapy, I am able to focus on my mental health, and, over social media, I’ve connected with a nationwide community of teachers of color. I have also created the podcast “A Black Educator’s Truth” to promote the importance of teachers of color. I am not alone. I am making a difference and inspiring the next generation of students who look like me to become future leaders and educators.
Research shows that all students benefit from having teachers of color, and that these benefits are especially large for students of color, like those I teach in Erie. Teachers of color can provide students of color with role models who “look like them,” and students of color have higher test scores, are more likely to graduate from high school, and are more likely to enroll in college when they are taught by teachers of color in grades K-12. Teachers of color also reduce suspension rates for students of color.
But teachers of color are underrepresented in the teaching profession in Erie, in Pennsylvania, and across the U.S. because of the inequities in the K-12 education system and other systemic barriers that disproportionately affect people of color, such as the Praxis exam. Teachers of color also leave the profession at higher rates than their white counterparts, often for reasons familiar to me, such as feeling silenced, powerless, or isolated in schools with predominantly white faculty and leadership.
If we want more students of color to enter the teaching profession—and to stay—education leaders and policymakers need to listen to the experiences of teachers of color like me. There are concrete policy changes we can take to improve recruitment and retention of a diverse teacher workforce, like finding new ways to assess teachers to get their teaching licenses and finding new ways to recruit teachers at an earlier age.
In my short time as an educator, I have found that many teachers of color are in this field because a teacher believed in them. We need to continue believing in our current students so that they become the next generation of teachers. We need to support our current teachers so that they do not leave. Teachers of color matter and we need more of them.