Recently, my students taught each other how to say “good morning” in the languages they use at home. In just a few minutes, we all learned how to greet each other in English, Spanish, Navajo and American Sign Language. This diversity in my classroom is a source of pride and strength.
While across the nation, the student population is becoming more diverse, diversity in the teaching profession has either remained stagnant or declined since 2012 in many states, including Colorado. In fact, a 2017 report by the Center for American Progress found that Colorado has a gap of 34 percentage points between non-White students and teachers, up 7 percentage points from 2011.
Indeed, students of color now make up more than half of the entire U.S. student population, while the vast majority of teachers look a lot like me: White and female. In fact, 80 percent of teachers are White and 77 percent are women.
So why is the teaching profession so White and what can we do about it?
First, we must better attract and accommodate potential teachers who have been shut out of traditional teacher programs. For example, a current student teacher at my school, Maruca R. Salazar, will soon earn a teaching degree after eight years of study, but she estimates that she could have completed her degree four years sooner if she had better access to tuition financing and child care.
Another friend, Cecilia Caldera, waited five years before starting education school because she needed tuition assistance and a program that also allowed her to work. Our teacher preparation programs must meet the needs of potential teachers from all backgrounds.
Additionally, many teachers of color may choose to leave the profession, due to feelings of isolation. My school district, Denver Public Schools (DPS), acknowledged this sentiment through a qualitative research study. One participant reported, “We need more African-American teachers. They feel isolated and afraid to speak out. This makes for a hostile work environment.”
Other district and school leaders should conduct similar research to inform their practices around supporting teachers of color.
Lastly, teachers should be compensated in a way that encourages them to join and stay in the profession.
In my first year of teaching, the mother of one of my students asked me how much teachers get paid. She explained that her daughter, a first-generation American, wanted to become a teacher. The mother told me she discouraged her daughter because as she told me, “It’s a hard life and you don’t make enough money.”
It was hard to argue with her. A report by the National Council on Teacher Quality examined teacher salaries and found that in the three largest school districts in Colorado, new teachers cannot even afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the current housing market. Policymakers must do more to build a selective and diverse teacher workforce, but low teacher pay will not get us there.
By making teaching programs more accessible and attractive and by supporting teachers of color in the classroom and compensating them competitively, we can make the teaching profession one that my talented and diverse students will grow up and choose to pursue.