Appreciating Teachers of Color
Ever since Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) moved to online classes due to COVID-19, Keara Williams, a South L.A. high school teacher, has been calling her students’ homes and asking their family members the reasons why she hasn’t received any homework from them. About 25% of students in her school are Black and 75% are Latino.
“There’s a lack of Black teachers in LAUSD alone and just teaching period,” Williams told the Los Angeles Times. “I think the fact that I’m Black, I’m from the community… I’m cultured. I think all of that helps me build my relationships with them,” she said.
Many other teachers like Williams have reached out to their students in extraordinary and thoughtful ways during school closures across the country, leaning on the strong, trusting relationships they’ve built with their students to help them stay connected during these uncertain times. Students of color, in particular, need an adult who cares deeply for their well-being and can identify with their needs and concerns.
That’s why teachers of color often find themselves going above and beyond the call of duty to provide instructional, emotional, and psychological supports to their students. And it’s part of a bigger picture: the positive impact that teachers of color have on all students, particularly students of color. My school experience would not have been as enriching but for my first Black male teacher, Mr. Calhoun, my ninth grade World History teacher, who taught me more in a year about confidence and the value of hard work than I had learned in my previous 10 years of school. The connection I made with him came from his belief in me and the extra time he took to support me when I needed it most.
I’m not alone in this experience. Teachers of color provide positive examples for all students who are becoming adults in a more globally and racially diverse society. They become role models who have higher expectations for students of color. For Black students in particular, Black teachers have a positive impact on their school attendance, disciplinary rates, and college attendance — even if they only have one Black teacher during their entire school experience. Teachers of color are important to help close our nation’s persistent opportunity gap and develop a more culturally responsive and racially sensitive country.
Unfortunately, teachers of color are vastly underrepresented — less than 20% of the nation’s public school teacher workforce identifies as a person of color. Even more troubling, 40% of the nation’s public schools lack a single teacher of color on staff. Meanwhile, 51% of students are of color. One of our nation’s biggest equity challenges has become even more consequential for a population of students whose feelings of disconnect and detachment from school are more acute as closures have persisted since mid-March.
And when schools return and face the fallout of COVID-19’s devastation on communities across the country, particularly communities of color, teachers will again be at the front line of closing learning gaps and ensuring that students have the support they need to continue. Having teachers of color and the benefits they provide all students will be vital to ensuring that students are engaged during tough times, that they push students through rigorous instruction based on the belief and wisdom that all students can succeed, and they guide students into advanced coursework and opportunities to expand their learning to prepare for the next grade.
But districts and schools must do their part to ensure that teachers of color have the support they need to take on this work. While recruitment efforts to bring more teachers of color should persist, a recent Ed Trust paper, If You Listen, We Will Stay, reports on the difficult working conditions and antagonistic, culturally insensitive school environments as some of the reasons why Black and Latino teachers leave the classroom at a disproportionately higher rate than their White counterparts.
Soon, with support from DonorsChoose, Ed Trust will be able to share some quantitative data that sheds light on some of the current conditions facing teachers of color and what can be done to help them stay in the classroom. Through a nationwide survey of close to 1,000 teachers of color, we found that teachers of color have more negative experiences with school culture and working conditions than their White counterparts, and that these working conditions are the primary driver of whether a teacher of color remains in the profession. While this does not capture the experiences of all teachers of color, this finding can help policymakers at the district and local level make better and more strategic investments in improving these conditions and having a positive impact on the diversity of their teacher workforces.
Schools and districts have a lot of tough decisions to make about how to best support students and families during these extremely challenging times. But a deliberate investment in supporting teachers of color who are essential to supporting students and ensuring equity will go a long way toward improving current conditions and creating better schools for the future.