Why U.S. Schools Need Teachers of Color: Problems and Solutions
In part one of this series, we examined historical reasons behind the low number of African-American teachers in U.S. public schools. Now we’ll explore how a diverse student body benefits from diverse teachers, and the efforts being made to bring more teachers of color into the classroom.
Students of color in public schools face harsher discipline, lower expectations
Institutional racism can affect all organizations, including schools. While this and other factors mean that all students of color are vulnerable to teacher bias based on race, black students are affected most profoundly.
The statistics on African-American students and discipline suggest that they face disproportionate consequences for misbehavior in school. For example, black students are three times more likely to get suspended from school than non-black students for the same behavior. In addition, 68 percent of black high school students reported experiencing frequent racial discrimination at school.
Non-white students tend to underachieve academically when all their teachers are white
Likewise, due to problems ranging from racism to the culture gap, Latino/as, Asian/Pacific Islanders, East Asians, Native Americans and students who are recent immigrants to the U.S. are more likely to underachieve in school when the majority of their teachers are white.
When speaking about the gap in achievement and opportunities for minority students, Education Trust President Kati Haycock says, “Many educators, and frankly many other members of the public, believe that poor kids and Latino kids and African-American kids just aren’t capable of learning to the same levels of other kids. That sort of idea that is locked in people’s heads, that kind of no matter what schools do, these kids will never achieve at really high levels. That’s absolutely our biggest challenge.”
Combating classroom discrimination
Scholastic.com offers many strategies educators can use to combat race-based discrimination in the classroom, including:
- Set and maintain the same high expectations for all students
- Prevent minority students from feeling invisible. One school with a 90 percent white student body set up a support group for parents and students of color, enabling them to address problems encountered in school, support each other, and make recommendations to teachers.
- Use a progressive discipline model such as Positive Behavioral Support
Bringing more teachers of color into classrooms
Historically, African-American educators enjoyed collaborative relationships with teachers in higher education, as well as community members in surrounding neighborhoods. If renewed, this could work well to develop bridges between K-12 and higher education and develop mentor relationships for students of color who struggle. This can help encourage more African-Americans, Latino/as, and other underrepresented groups to enter the teaching profession.
In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched the TEACH campaign, a movement to increase interest in and respect for teaching careers. TEACH seeks to attract young talent to the teaching profession, and in one in one town hall hosted by Morehouse College, Duncan, with Spike Lee at his side, called for more African-American men to join the cause.
University efforts to recruit diverse educators
Some schools and universities are working to recruit more young African Americans, particularly males, to their education programs. Other programs are taking a unique approach, working within their own communities to seek qualified teacher trainees.
One example, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Teacher Education Program, specializes in training African-American teachers with excellent results — approximately 94 percent of trainees remained in the profession after four years of teaching. Considering the average teacher attrition rates (around 30-50 percent) in the first five years of teaching, MMTEP’s results are excellent.
This type of dedicated African-American educator might be exactly what African-American student populations need. According to a 2006 study at Colorado State University, black male teachers have a unique relationship with students, particularly young African-American males.
Seeing black teachers in the classroom: “I could follow in their footsteps”
Having black teachers in a position of respect and authority can have a profound effect on African-American students. Reflecting on this experience in a ChalkBeat Colorado interview, Denver Public Schools teacher Malcinia Conley said, “I’d look at them, and believe ‘You can do anything you want.’ I could follow in their footsteps.”
As American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says, “We need to do more to ensure that teachers better represent the students they teach. This includes thinking differently about recruitment and retention and about how we as a country view teaching.”
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.