This week marked the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year for many districts across the country. My little sister, who appreciates any reference I make to her in my writings, is now in sixth grade and I'm now wondering where all the time has gone.
For the first time in her young life she will see black teachers in her classrooms. Up until this point she has never been in a school with any black teachers, so the fact that she has two female black teachers this year is one strong step towards some semblance of representation in her suburban life.
Maybe it comes to no surprise to you that my sister who lives in suburban Maryland hasn't been taught by a black teacher before, but even in major urban locales like Washington, DC and Chicago, IL, there are large disparities between teachers and students of color. It is becoming less and less likely that my sister and her peers around the nation will continue to see black teachers in the classroom. That is, if they even have already.
The U.S. Department of Education has projected that by 2022, students of color will make up 54.7 percent of the public-school student population. But, here's the thing, 80% of teachers today are white.
Now, you may be thinking, "Okay, then we'll just recruit more teachers of color." Well, you see, recruitment for teachers of color, particularly black teachers, and specifically black male teachers, is at an all-time high. The problem is not recruitment, it's retainment.
According to a report from the Albert Shanker Institute, the share of black teachers in the classroom has significantly decreased over the past decade. For example, Washington, DC, experienced a nearly 28% citywide decline in black teachers during this period. Mind you, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) has a predominantly black student population. There's a reason the funk band Parliament named their 1975 album "Chocolate City" in homage to Washington, DC.
In order to learn what needs to be done to address the high turn over rates of black teachers, I reached out to some black teachers for their perspective.
What you'll read next are the teacher's personal answers to the question, "What is needed to keep teachers of color in the classroom?"
I am a second year teacher at a fourth year turnaround school on Chicago's West Side. A turnaround school is a chronically under performing school that is chosen to begin a year with new leaders, teachers and staff to provide students more opportunities now and in the future.
At my school I am one of three teachers of color from a staff of 18 teachers. Ultimately what is keeping me in my classroom is preparation, trust, and the network.
Before entering the classroom as the teacher of record I went through a rigorous teacher residency program. I spent 4 days shadowing a teacher while simultaneously completing graduate coursework for a Masters of Arts in Teaching. I was given four opportunities throughout the year to be the lead teacher with constant feedback needed to hone my practice. This opportunity to learn from a veteran teacher has made a difference in my practice because it gave me preparation in real time with positive feedback for tangible change.
After I completed my residency program I joined a school in the network that supported my residency program. This consistency with expectations for teachers and commitment to excellence in and outside of the classroom is another reason I am staying in my classroom. In my residency year I had a team of coaches. I shadowed the veteran teacher who offered real-time advice and support, a mentor resident coach (MRC) who coaches both me and my mentor teacher, a cohort made up of other first year teachers, and many opportunities for teacher development. This team of individuals is perhaps the most important factor in why I'm choosing to stay in my classroom.
Lastly, the trust built within my school is also important. There are many ways education is being standardized with Common Core State Standards and standardized testing. Although my network is pushing for a cohesive curriculum across grades and across schools, the network and my administrative team has given teachers the space and opportunity to be teacher leaders. We focus on what we need to improve our practice while learning from other teachers.
Growing up I was taught to be a doctor or lawyer because I was “smart” and being a teacher was sort of a cop out. Teaching was thought of as a position where my level of scholarly aptitude was not necessary. I believe that notion needs to change in the black community. Teachers are regal. Education is one of the keys to taking us out of this oppression we still face today.
Teachers of color are the most immediate need in the classroom, but as a community we need to do more to get them into the classroom and keep them there. I believe that with more prestige placed on the teaching profession in urban communities this can be achieved. I say this because with strength in numbers there is more of a sense of community. We all sit at the same lunch table for a reason and in my experience those common bonds make work life and any ignorance or lack of understanding from any other group easier to deal with. I also think schools need to do more diversity training, addressing biases of people who mean well and therefore don’t recognize the impact of some of their actions.
The school systems need to offer more support to teachers of color and ways to advance, but unfortunately I do not think that support can come from teachers who are not of color – at least not in the same ways. However, I do acknowledge that this is where it has to come from currently. Ultimately, I would offer teacher training programs or scholarships to the best high school students of color and other incentives. It is important that in our communities we push people towards being teachers, because we are necessary.
As a teacher of color who teaches children of color, one of the most frustrating things that I deal with is a lack of knowledge and awareness from my white colleagues. By "lack of knowledge and awareness," I am referring to a lack of understanding of their own privilege, how it affects their students and their fellow teachers, and how they can use their privilege to be an ally by participating in culturally responsive teaching.
As an African American woman, it is hard for me to see a classroom environment where our students' culture or racial background is not acknowledged and praised on a daily basis. Without this acknowledgment, we cannot fully affirm our students, which is especially important in the early childhood classroom where you are molding young learners. I believe that diversity training for teachers and staff – which would include discussions about white privilege, culturally responsive teaching, and interacting with students and families of a diverse backgrounds – would lead to a less frustrating work environment and thus the retention of teachers of color.
To keep teachers of color in the classroom, we truly must understand behaviors of students of color in our current education system and the best ways to address those behaviors. I do find that a lot of the time, teachers of color, especially males, are bogged down by behaviors based on who can "handle" the student the best which often equates to "troubled black student responds best to strong black teacher." The majority of us do not want to see any student, let alone a student of color, fail so we gladly take on that burden. Meanwhile our white colleagues excel in academics and other aspects of the profession often winning awards for teaching etc. while we handle the behaviors and the students who need strong caring figures the most. That can be discouraging for a lot of teachers who end up in that position of handling behaviors while maintaining rigor and high achievement because those are often the teachers who work harder than anyone yet receive the least amount of support and praise.