The Black Teacher Effect
Yet another piece of evidence has emerged showing the importance of diversifying the teaching profession: In a study published by the Institute of Labor Economics last week, low-income Black students who have a Black teacher for at least one year in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school later and more likely to consider college.
We heard this from Black teachers when we traveled the country talking to them — that their experiences, as students, were enriched by having a teacher who looked like them. We also heard that later, as educators, they provided the kind of relationships, classroom environments, and expectations for students of color that helped them shine.
But why does this happen?
Honestly, we don’t know why. What we do know is what we heard during our focus groups: Black teachers believe they impact the lives of Black students in ways that differ from those of their White colleagues:
- Black teachers develop an initial trust and rapport with students that help build relationships that promote learning. Teachers told us that, because of perceived cultural and experiential similarities, students came to trust them more and feel safe in their classrooms — thus, creating a conducive learning environment.
- As role models for Black children, Black teachers feel they are examples of how to overcome challenges to be successful in life. Many Black teachers shared the lived experiences of their Black students. Because of this, they feel confident teaching students about challenges of discrimination and, at times, poverty, and were well-positioned to help students understand what it takes to be successful in this world.
- When Black students encounter challenges in the classroom, Black teachers sympathize as White teachers do. The difference, teachers in our focus groups said, is that they don’t use these challenges to make excuses for students, but to show students these are reasons to push on and succeed.
- Black teachers often feel an obligation — that they say is somewhat intensified by their limited representation in the teaching workforce — to go beyond teaching solely academics and to educate the entire child, including character-building and helping with everyday life skills. This sense of obligation often comes about because they believe that Black students won’t receive high expectations and life skills from White teachers.
In the end, the “why” doesn’t matter as much as the understanding and acknowledgement that students — all students and especially students of color — benefit from learning in a school building staffed with diverse adults. And that only happens if school and district leaders prioritize diversity and are intentional about recruiting and retaining teachers of color. They’d be foolish not to. The effects, as this latest study shows, are life-changing.