With a largely white, middle class, monolingual teaching force, and an increasingly diverse student population, there is a need to recruit more teachers and administrators of color into the profession. This is essential, but will take time. There also is a critical need right now to provide teachers of all colors with training and support in order to effectively address current and long-standing equity and diversity issues in our classrooms and schools.
Anyone of any color can be a good teacher (or a bad one). At the same time, research shows that, on average, students learn better from teachers who look like them and who share similar backgrounds and experience. Black students, for example, tend to learn better from black teachers. The same is true for other groups. This shouldn’t be surprising. Students respond differently to adults they can relate to. Educators of color may have unique insights into the school experience, including the experience of stereotyping and prejudice.
Black students, for example, are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts for the same offense. Many studies suggest that unconscious racial bias and lowered expectations, rather than overt racism, often play a critical role.
In an experiment using actual school records of students who had misbehaved, but with the names changed, teachers were much more likely to recommend punishment for those with black-sounding names (e.g., Deshawn), than those with white ones (Jake). Another study found that black boys who had even one black teacher during elementary school were less likely to drop out of high school, and were more likely to want to attend college.
With a more diverse staff, more students would see their own reality reflected and validated in the school setting. It would also allow white students to see from multiple perspectives, avoiding some of the blind spots of the traditional curriculum. For a more balanced education then, students need “mirrors” as well as “windows” on the world.
We shouldn’t have to wait, however, for more teachers of color to be hired. All teachers need to promote inclusive, anti-bias, culturally responsive education. By incorporating students’ life experiences and culture into the curriculum, teachers can make learning more relevant and effective, increase motivation, and build bridges between home, school and community.
Schools will not be able to serve all children well if teachers are unaware of their students’ diverse backgrounds and cultural learning styles, or if they communicate unconscious prejudices, stereotypes and lowered expectations for certain students. We need to realize that diversity is an asset and prepare all of our students for living in a diverse world.
Awareness and good intentions are not enough. Educators need concrete knowledge and training, and the moral courage and will to act. While teachers cannot solve all of society’s problems, they can make a significant difference in the lives of their students. Children are our most precious resource and our investment in the future. The stakes of waiting are simply too high.
• Randie Gottlieb lives in Yakima.