A More Diverse Educator Workforce Will Benefit All Children
June 8, 2022
By Daisha Williams
After earning her college degree from the university that she had always dreamed of attending, Desiree Martinez, a Latina graduate who had attended a predominantly Latino high school in an economically marginalized community, wrote an open letter recalling an exchange she had with a high school teacher who did not have high expectations of her acceptance to that university:
“You let out a sigh,” Martinez remembered. “I watched as a frown and puzzled look quickly grew on your face. You commented, ‘I don’t know why counselors push students into these schools they’re not ready for.’ My heart fell as you continued, ‘students only get their hearts broken when they don’t get into those schools and the students that do get in come back as dropouts.’”
Fortunately, another teacher encouraged Martinez to not let people like that be the reason to hold herself back, and today, Martinez is now a first-generation college graduate of the University of California-Los Angeles. There’s more to this success story, however: Martinez’ first exchange was with a white teacher and the second was with a Latino teacher. Unfortunately, as many of us know firsthand, this story is not isolated to Desiree Martinez’ experience – similar stories are echoed across the country from countless Black and brown students with similar experiences with white educators.
The important role that teachers play in our lives, in the lives of our children, and in our society is undeniable – we can all remember our best teachers, how they made us feel, how they expanded our minds with new information, and how they met us where we were with patience, compassion, and high expectations of where we could go. What is also undeniable is the fact that teachers face immense challenges daily while doing some of the most important work in our society. They have endured systemic issues for years, including recent pandemic upheaval, but also decades of being severely underpaid, having inadequate access to classroom resources, and more. For a society with so much, it is inexcusable we do so little to keep the backbone and heart of our education system – our teachers – thriving and well-supported.
Further, with so many pressing issues in our education system, it is also inexcusable that we waste so much time and resources on cultural wedge issues that take us five steps backward and bury the real issues under manufactured ones. Ohio currently has over three bills in the State Legislature that combat progressive strides in education, including debate over the teaching of “divisive concepts” in classrooms. This conflicts with even our own Ohio Learning Standards for Social Studies that provide guidance on how to discuss racial intolerance, institutionalized racial discrimination, and women’s suffrage, among many other topics that would be banned by this bill. In the rise of political debate over how American History is taught to our country’s children, we should look at the current state of our classrooms now in reality and identify through evidence and facts where the real areas of opportunity are to ensure educational equity for every child in our state. One of these opportunities lies in diversifying our teacher workforce.
The expansion of the Black and brown teacher pipeline is direly needed.
There is a saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Students of color are not served well when they are not exposed to diverse teaching professionals. The research is clear, a more diverse educator workforce benefits all students. Research shows the person in the front of the classroom can make a big difference in a child’s education, especially for Black, Latino, and other students of color who are more likely to thrive educationally when they have access to a diverse teaching force. However, elementary and secondary public-school teachers in the United States are less racially and ethnically diverse than their students. In fact, 8 in 10 American public-school teachers are white, with nearly 75% being women. Compare this to the students they teach: white students are no longer the majority in public school classrooms, with 47% of U.S. students being white, 27% being Hispanic/Latino, 15% being Black, 5% being Asian, and 1% or fewer being Pacific Islander, American Indian, or Alaska Native. Though the student population is growing in diversity, the teacher population is not.
Coming into a classroom where the teacher does not look like you can influence a student’s success. For example, excessive and exclusionary school discipline is doled out by white teachers at higher rates to children of color, especially Black students. Disparities in discipline from Ohio during the 2018-2019 school year show that Black boys were 4.5x more likely to be suspended or expelled than white male students and Black girls faced 7x more out-of-school suspensions than white female students. While there are many factors contributing to discipline disparities and others impacting Black and brown students, one national study gives us some additional insights. It found that “when students are assigned to one demographically mismatched teacher and one same-race or same-sex teacher, the demographically mismatched teacher is significantly more likely to perceive the student as being frequently disruptive, frequently inattentive, and less likely to complete homework than is the teacher of a similar demographic background.”
Children of color are also less likely to be referred to gifted programs. When students of color have teachers of color, the chances are higher that they will be identified as gifted. In a 2016 report published by the American Educational Research Association found that Black and Latino third graders were half as likely as white students to be placed in gifted programs. Racial disparities in gifted education widen longer term gaps in opportunity; diversifying the teacher workforce can help.
Further, we cannot overlook how white students absolutely benefit from living in a more multicultural and diverse society in many ways and that white children seeing more people of color in leadership roles can help to break down negative racial stereotypes that may otherwise persist.
Greater Need for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training for Teachers
It is also critical that we recognize how diversity, equity, and inclusion training for teachers can make a positive different for students of color. Sociology professor, Ranita Ray observed classrooms in some of the largest metropolitan public school districts serving primarily Black, Latino, and other students of color. The researcher observed “rampant racism”, that not only were students met with “racial violence” and bias, but they were also met with unkindness and made to feel the same feelings of discomfort that many have long ignored yet politicians today claim take place for white students when learning about racism. For example: during a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement discussing Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat in protest, a Black fifth grader asked their white teacher if this act was like the peaceful protest Colin Kaepernick performed during the National Anthem in present day. The teacher replied, “Rosa Parks didn’t disrespect our country,” and dismissed the question. Another example from this study is how a teacher stated how a Latino student needed to have more “grit” and “willpower” to get their work done when their parent was deported out of the United States. Even in situations where a teacher may disagree politically about issues or questions raised by students, being able to have discussion without displays of microaggressions against students should be prioritized.
Hiring more racially diverse teachers with similar backgrounds and shared experiences with new and ever-changing student demographics is essential, but there are challenges to making this a reality.
While it has been shown that students from diverse backgrounds perform better with teachers of color, it is hard to attract and recruit educators of color and even harder to keep them. As of 2018, teachers of color only accounted for 18% of the total teacher workforce. Black male educators only account for 2% of that group. This lack of diversity is greater in larger school districts. We must ask ourselves why are these teachers not staying in America’s classrooms.
Retention of Black and brown teachers is challenging for many school districts, but it doesn’t have to be. Studies found that for many Black and brown teachers they are often faced with working conditions and climates that are unwelcoming and fought with racial microaggressions. In a study that surveyed Black math teachers across the nation, 97% of these teachers stated they experienced some form of microaggressions daily. One example of a microaggression is what is called the “invisible tax”. Black teachers, especially males, are often assigned extra responsibilities to plan cultural activities or to be mentors or disciplinarians when behavioral incidents arise, especially among students of color, because “they could handle it” and could fix or get students straight in comparison to their White colleagues who were not faced with picking up this extra work.
Though the population of Black educators is scarce, when there are Black educators, what they produce and what they bring out of students is significant. Let us examine the role model effect. A researcher discovered that when Black students were exposed to Black teachers by third grade, they were 13% more likely to enroll in college. Further, when Black students had two Black teachers by third grade, their likelihood of college enrollment increased to 32%. Black teachers are also more likely to have higher expectations for their Black students than white teachers. Having teachers of color work with students has been proven to lead to improved test scores, graduation rates, increasing aspirations of attending college, and decreased absences. It also overall helps with building relationships with students when those leading the learning have shared experiences.
My Personal Experience Inspires Me to be an Educator
As a future educator myself, and a former K-12 student, having representation in the classroom has made an impact on me, and it is the same impact I hope to have on my future students. My path to pursuing a degree in Education was not a typical one: I did not grow up my entire life wanting to be a teacher, but I grew up loving to learn. It was Black educators throughout my academic career that left something there. It was their encouraging words, their refusal to give up, and the way they empowered me to navigate social realities that I was too young to fully understand, left a positive mark on me.
The reality they knew too well was that it might be harder for my classmates and I because of our race, because of the way our society and systemic policies puts Black children at the bottom of the hierarchy already. I can only guess that therefore they were so thorough in their lesson plans, their teaching, and in their motivation to connect with us. But it worked and I see it now.
We are in a day and age where a concerted effort is being made to distort and under-value multiculturalism and the importance of diversity in a multicultural society. In many professions that involve public service and catering to the needs of society, making sure that there is both an appreciation for and understanding of diversity and inclusion and respect for all individuals is critical, especially when there are lives and life outcomes at stake. There are not enough professional development days, not enough diversity trainings, not enough public messages about racial injustice taking place across the nation, that can replace knowing about racism versus living with it. We need a teaching force that reflects the community they serve. We need to not only bring more teachers of color in the classroom, but build a system that gives the funding, resources, support, and appropriate school culture that retains them to reach multicultural students for generations to come.