Each day, teachers differentiate instruction based on student learning styles, content knowledge, and academic needs. More conversations arise on the content to which students are now exposed. In an increasingly globalized society, students are expected to learn about cultures, ethnicities, religions, and nationalities beyond their immediate environment.
In current discussions on how to provide diverse classroom content material, a gap in personnel arises. Students will likely never encounter a teacher of color in their public education experience. Initiatives exist to help bridge the teacher diversity gap so all students can be taught by the diverse individuals they will encounter in their future college, career, or military branch, but there remains much work to do.
Do our schools diversify the staff personnel to reflect the student body? Will our students learn about globally complex problems from adults from a wide range of races, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, or ethnicities?
In short, the answer today is a resounding no.
The Pew Research Center cites that 49.7% of students enrolled in public school identify as white with students of color now comprising approximately half of the students enrolled in public schools. The number of teachers of color has significantly increased from 1980, but numbers from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that generally, 80% of teachers identify as white. Students of color could easily pass through their entire K-12 educational experience without a teacher of color at the head of the classroom.
I can attest to the severe lack of teachers of color in my public education experience. In elementary school, I only encountered one female African-American teacher, Ms. Rhodes. All the teachers my peers and I had seen were white so my classmates wondered whether Ms. Rhodes and I were related since we shared the same racial background. Third grade marked also the first year of high-stakes Maryland testing so race became more present in our educational experience. I would not encounter another teacher of color until my sixth grade Asian-American female teacher, Ms. Huang–she would be the sole Asian teacher of my public school experience.
Students of color can easily never experience the opportunity to see their background or ethnicity reflected at them in an academic environment. Instead, they are far more likely to experience a teacher of color in an athletic or disciplinarian scenario, rather than, in an advanced math course.
Recent research indicates that students of color benefit from teachers who look like them as a “role-model effect” as they can engage with someone who likely has faced similar struggles and hardships. Founder of the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity (BranchED), Cassandra Herring, targets 253 educator-preparation programs at federally-designated colleges and universities that primarily serve African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students. In the BranchED programming, they encourage teacher-prep programs to emphasize more direct classroom instruction, as well as, the use of data to drive classroom instruction. BranchED also partners with other non-profit organizations such as, Teaching Works at the University of Michigan, to offer robust professional development to potential teachers at minority colleges and universities.
Working conditions and pay continue to drive the under-representation of minorities in the teaching profession. The Learning Policy Institute released a study that highlighted high turnover rates for minority teachers. Many minority teachers cite that management, leadership, and tough organizational conditions compelled them to leave the profession. Herring asserts that education programs can help improve retention by enabling alumni to connect and build support amongst each other.
Teachers can feel isolated either within a content area or school. Minority teachers often feel particularly isolated as few other teachers may understand the compounded struggles they face. Non-profit organizations such as, Profound Gentlemen, The Fellowship, and the Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators address the support, social, and academic needs that many teachers of color need. Listed below are more specifics on how each program addresses the unique needs of minority teachers:
- Profound Gentleman: Non-profit that serves over 350 male educators of color across the country by offering targeted educator plans, professional development, and mentorship to help retain black male educators.
- The Fellowship: Professional membership and activist organization that advances the recruitment, retention, and development of black male educators in schools throughout Philadelphia.
- Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators: Caucus within the Baltimore Teachers Union that aims to recruit and retain more black educators in the Baltimore Public School system.
The National Bureau of Economic Research published a study that demonstrates that black students who have only one black teacher lowers their highschool dropout risk, increases their college aspirations, and can ultimately lead to their eventual college enrollment. The study found that black students who have at least two black teachers are 32% more likely to attend college. Students of color can witness firsthand the success of post-secondary education and have a model upon which to base their future ambitions.
In public schools, the achievement gap continues to divide white students from many students of color. Classroom differentiation and diverse content materials alone cannot bridge the gaps endemic to the public school system, especially if students never have a teacher who mirrors their personal experience.
In our twenty-first-century global society, students will only thrive by their consistent and frequent engagement with difference. A difference that broadens their understanding of others in the world. A difference that deepens their empathy on the struggles and barriers others feel at home and abroad. A difference that will contribute to their forging solutions to break barriers and build bridges amongst new communities.
More to do. More to come.
Director of Projects, SchermCo
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SchermCo is a social-impact implementation firm that offers strategic advising, organizational development, and implementation services to schools and education-focused organizations. SchermCo reinvests 1% of their time/funds from each project back into the communities they serve.