Diversity in the Classroom: Why Representation Matters
This article originally appeared in Diverse Issues in Higher Education and is reprinted with permission.
Teacher diversity is invaluable for all students. Having a teacher of color at the helm of a classroom benefits all learners, both academically and through deep and enriching social emotional connections. However, according to The White House’s fact sheet for The American Families Plan, while teachers of color can have a particularly strong impact on students of color, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only one in five teachers are people of color, compared to more than half of K-12 public school students. That is why President Biden is calling on Congress to invest $9 billion in American teachers, addressing shortages, improving training and supports for teachers, and boosting teacher diversity.
Why teacher diversity matters
Representation in the classroom matters. Having a diverse teacher workforce connects cultures, sets high expectations, and reduces implicit bias. Far too often, students of color feel isolated, underrepresented or mistreated, which leads to lower graduation and higher dropout rates. Decades of research has demonstrated that teachers of color can help close access and opportunity gaps for students of color while being vital to the well-being of students of all races. With a teacher of color leading a classroom, students of color see themselves represented and identify with them as role models. A diverse teacher workforce not only supports a student’s academic and social and emotional outcomes, it can lead classroom students to consider becoming educators themselves.
In nearly all U.S. school districts, students of color proportionally outnumber teachers of color. The dearth of teachers of color is felt even more acutely in our male education population. Black and Latino male educators, specifically, comprise of approximately 2% each of the teaching population. Given that most U.S. children grow up with all White female teachers, and a student’s only interaction with men of color may be through the television or social media platforms, racial bias can and does develop early in life. I often ask people to think about their own personal backgrounds. Do you remember having a male teacher of color in your schooling? The answer is frequently no. The follow up question is always, how would having a male teacher of color in your classroom impacted your academic, social, and career outcomes?
Recruiting more diverse teachers
Although research and experience indicate we need a more diverse teacher workforce, educator preparation programs (EPPs), along with other alternate route programs, struggle to recruit teachers of color in proportion to the number of students of color in public schools. We must identify students of color that would make great educators at the elementary level and encourage them through leadership roles, programs that address their interest, and opportunities to support their fellow peers. We must also remind the public that teaching is a pathway to social change. We must convey teaching as more than academic instruction; it is a social justice endeavor that creates equity among people and communities and can correct the historical discrimination of our nation’s citizens of color.
To help address teaching disparities among men of color, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) created The Black and Hispanic/Latino Network Improvement Community (NIC), which brought together 10 member institutions to use improvement science to address the shortage crisis of Black and Hispanic/Latino learner-ready male teachers. This type of collaborative partnership provides a better understanding of the barriers to recruiting and retaining male teachers of color in educator preparation programs and uncovers potential solutions.
Recruiting teachers of color must also take place outside of school. Hosting information sessions at community colleges, churches, and cultural centers can help educate students of color about becoming a teacher. We must also be persistent and proactive when advising our students of color. A student may not know the questions to ask, and an advisor should not wait for them to seek help. In fact, many students may not even know to seek advisement. A strategy developed from AACTE’s Black and Hispanic/Latino NIC, intrusive advising is deliberate interaction with a student that enhances their motivation and increases their chances of success. Through frequent check-ins, advisors can foster careers in teaching for students of color, understand educational opportunity gaps, and address problems before they start. Advisors do not wait for a candidate to seek them out, rather advisors seek the candidate out and begin the conversation.
Financial barriers also exist for many students of color who want to pursue education as a profession. Through advisement, we can inform students about options they have for grants, reduced tuition, and financial aid. For example, the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant provides up to $4,000 per year to students who are majoring in a high needs teaching field and will teach for four years at an elementary school, secondary school, or educational service agency that serves students from low-income families. Many states also offer additional grants and other types of financial assistance that can be accessed by students of color. The paths to paying for an education degree are outlined in AACTE’s, Issue Brief: How Do Education Students Pay for College?. What is striking about the research is that students of color must take out more loans or secure employment while pursuing their degrees at significantly higher rates than their white colleagues. We must all advocate for a debt-free education degree, which will attract more candidates and reduce our growing teacher shortage crisis.
Retaining a diverse workforce
While school districts are increasing efforts to recruit more teachers of color, we must also work hard to retain them for the long haul. Teachers of color leave the profession at higher rates than White teachers. According to The Learning Policy Institute, 19% of teachers of color move to different schools or leave the profession annually, as compared to 15% of White teachers. We know that teacher diversity not only benefits students, it also bolsters teachers of color who are already in the profession. Therefore, before teachers of color enter the field full-time, educator preparation programs can support the retention of candidates of color through the establishment of affinity groups, supportive clinical field experiences, and residency models that include partnerships between the preparation program and the district.
Mentoring programs and affinity groups on college campuses are effective ways to provide teacher candidates of color a place to engage with those of the same race, ethnicity, or cultural background. Students can share lived experiences, create spaces where they feel acknowledged and respected, and celebrate a common passion for teaching. Additionally, EPPs must continue to create and sustain environments that equally values all student contributions. Educators must continue to build their curriculum and classroom experiences through a culturally responsive lens, elevating the historical contributions of people of color, people with disabilities, and people from the LGBTQ+ communities.
We must also ensure our nation’s teachers of color are financially rewarded for their work. Teachers in low-income schools tend to be paid lower-than-average salaries. For that reason, many students of color in high-poverty areas are educated by novice teachers with minimal classroom experience. Or worse, these instructors may be without qualifications entirely. Thus, students in lower-income communities receive the fewest resources and the least prepared teachers. Without the financial means to continue teaching in lower-income communities, many teachers will pursue this work temporarily, moving to more lucrative teaching opportunities in higher-income communities down the line. It is crucial we pay our teachers a salary that reflects their impact on our society, values their expertise, and that allows them to live comfortably without requiring a second job.
Having a racially and culturally diverse teacher workforce is essential for all students. For students of color, having a teacher of the same race can have a lasting effect on their schooling and life trajectory. Seeing members of their own race/ethnicity as role models in positions of authority has critical educational benefits. As a nation, we must commit to building a high-quality, diverse teacher workforce that reduces teacher turnover and improves learning and academic achievements for all students.
Jacqueline Rodriguez is vice president for research, policy, & advocacy at AACTE, where she leads strategy and content development for the association’s scholarship, programs and professional learning, state and federal policy and advocacy initiatives.