The Importance of Grow Your Own Programs to Recruit Teachers of Color
My first day as an education major, I had no idea whether teaching would be my passion, but I did feel like I didn’t belong in that classroom alongside my White peers. I was one of the two students of color amongst 30 other White students hoping to become a teacher. All of sudden, my Salvadoran Latina identity felt like a burden — as if who I was and how I looked made me “not good enough” to be a teacher or “not qualified enough” in comparison to my White peers. Because Latino teachers are not commonly seen in the classroom, my imposter syndrome was at its peak.
People of color only make up 20% of the teacher workforce — a number that has barely budged in decades. Personally, I never had a Latino teacher in my own K-12 education. Is it possible that not seeing myself represented in the classroom instilled in me a belief that teachers of color are somehow inferior? Is it possible that this is the message other students of color receive when they do not see themselves represented in the teacher population? These thoughts haunted me, until I joined the Pionero Scholars Program at Lipscomb University, a college community that validated my feelings and understood what it meant to be a teacher of color.
The Pionero Scholars Program is a Grow Your Own (GYO) scholarship and outreach program designed to recruit teachers of color within the Nashville community. Each year, Metro Nashville begins the school year with more than 100 empty classrooms, as there is a mismatch between teachers graduating with degrees and the needs of the district. Beyond that, teacher diversity is an important topic nationwide, as Black and Latino students, first-generation students, English learners, and students from low-income backgrounds need role models who understand where they come from and the challenges they face.
Pionero was developed for students like me who need targeted support as teachers of color beyond what standard educational programs provide. The program understands that there is both a culture and representation gap in teacher population and acknowledges that most students of color pursuing a career in education come from backgrounds that are vastly different than their White counterparts.
When I became a part of the Pionero community as a sophomore, I gained emotional and financial support to continue succeeding in my undergraduate studies. I also gained a community of leaders and mentors willing to help me navigate through the “extra stuff” that teachers of color deal with. Outside of the curriculum, my Pionero peers and I have engaged in conversations and workshops about culture, diversity, and representation in the classroom. We have also navigated the negative connotations we need to break through. For me, it has been hard overcoming the perception that as a woman of color, I need to become a doctor or engineer to “prove myself.” The truth is that a career in education is valuable, and as a woman of color going into the teaching profession, I am valuable, too.
As a student teacher, it has been eye-opening to not only see the statistics and research around lack of diversity and representation in teaching, but also live through it in some of my placements, where the majority of students are non-White, but the teachers are mainly White. Students having someone who reflects back to them their culture, language, or background is not valued enough, despite the research that touts the benefits that teachers of color bring to the classroom. My interactions have been different. When I called a Latino parent at home, I could hear the joy and relief in her voice when I told her I spoke Spanish. We ended up talking about a recipe the mother was making. That added sense of empathy and understanding makes such a difference to Latino students and their parents. Representation matters.
I wish schools and educational preparation programs understood that diversity and inclusion means more than just training current teachers how to be culturally sensitive, but more importantly, it is about creating pipelines and access for people of color to become teachers and about understanding that teachers of color need different levels of support and resources.
As I near my graduation, I keep thinking about how blessed I am to be a part of a community of future teachers who come from diverse backgrounds and now have access to opportunities that will contribute to our community. States need to purposefully recruit and retain people of color in the teaching profession. That’s why Ed Trust designed a tool for state and school leaders to see how their state is prioritizing its teacher diversity efforts. Many states offer GYO programs similar to Tennessee, but as a soon-to-be teacher, I would say that when it comes to teacher diversity, there is always room for improvement.
Ruby Aguilar is a Salvadoran-American, future teacher, and EmpowerED student leader. She is a current senior at Lipscomb University, where she is finishing her undergraduate degree in English teaching for secondary education. Born and raised in Nashville, Ruby looks forward to having her own classroom and giving back to her diverse community by teaching at a Metro Nashville Public High School.