Last year, several of my talented, dedicated colleagues of color announced they were leaving our school, and the news hit some students hard. “Black teachers are so rare to find,” one Black student, a sophomore, explained. “When you do find them, you create an amazing bond.”
She’s right: According to a report by the Center for American Progress, there is a 29 percentage point difference between the number of students of color and the number of teachers of color in Massachusetts public schools.
That lack of teacher diversity can harm our kids. Research shows that Black students perform higher academically, are more likely to graduate from high school and are less likely to be suspended when they have Black teachers. In fact, a more diverse teaching workforce has been shown to result in positive effects for all students.
Because I’m White, I grew up with teachers who looked like me. I didn’t consider how race impacted my sense of belonging, my confidence or my success in school. My schools were set up for students like me, and I saw myself and my experiences reflected everywhere. My privilege was invisible to me.
Now, talking to my students, I am beginning to recognize this privilege—and how much teacher diversity matters.
A senior told me, “It’s important to have my Black and Brown teachers. They can understand me and connect with me on a deeper level.”
Her word choice struck me: Not just “Black and Brown teachers,” but “my Black and Brown teachers.” Her pride in having teachers who shared and understood her racial identity was evident.
Another senior said, “Black teachers serve as living proof to young students of color that we can and will become more than just a stereotype.”
A 10th-grader told me about her sixth grade teacher, a White woman whom she’d “loved.”
“We had a debate meet after school,” she said, “and she was telling us how to dress. She said, ‘Don’t wear your hair nappy.’ At first, we didn’t understand. But it always stuck in my mind.”
Students told me about less overt injustices, too. Often, a junior explained, teachers like me enter his community with unfair expectations of the impact of our work.
“I particularly hate when teachers (usually White and affluent) come into an area like ours with this idea that they are going to come save all these Brown and Black kids from their lack of education. It’s annoying to have a teacher that thinks you are less,” he wrote.
What Can Massachusetts Do?
So what can Massachusetts do to address our lack of diversity?
We can start by looking at how we attract teachers of color into schools and support them in staying there. In 2017, almost half of school districts reported that they had no defined strategies in place for recruiting and retaining educators of color. Until districts prioritize diversifying the teacher workforce, our students will continue to say, “Black teachers are so rare to find.”
We can also develop culturally-responsive pedagogy. Using books like Christopher Emdin’s “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood” or Ijeoma Uluo’s “So You Want to Talk about Race” can help White teachers unpack implicit biases and develop strategies for ensuring that all students succeed.
Finally, White teachers can choose to see teacher diversity as our issue, too. We can help recruit more diverse teachers in the future by encouraging all of our students (not just the White girls) to consider careers in education.
We can help create more equitable environments for teachers of color to work and thrive. For example, we can push back when we see teachers of color being asked to shoulder a disproportionate share of disciplinary work in our schools, or we can advocate for more equitable representation of teachers of color in teacher leadership roles.
Most importantly, we can hold one another accountable for examining our own privilege and becoming culturally responsive educators who contribute to school environments that are affirming and safe for everyone in our communities.
When the populations of our staff rooms look more like the populations of our classrooms, our schools will be better places—more responsive to students’ needs, more reflective of our diverse society and better equipped to work together toward a more inclusive, empowered citizenry.
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