Can You Be What You Don’t See?

One day, my son asked me a question that came from out of left field: “Will my teacher be brown?”

This guest post appears in coordination with Teacher Appreciation Week and #TeachingIs, a social media movement seeking to elevate public perception of the teaching profession. Click here to learn how you can participate.

Last June, my husband Paul, an African-American male, began interviewing for English instructional positions at middle and high schools in our home state. He had six interviews lined up and was offered jobs at three schools before he had a chance to finish all the interviews. My husband is a seven-year teaching veteran who coached Division 1 track and field for three years at a large university, so he has a lot to offer any school.

However, he also represents a glaring need—for a more diverse teaching population.

As a teacher, I had recognized the need for more teachers of color in my own school, so I wasn’t surprised by my husband’s experience. But the issue didn’t truly hit home until I became a parent of a child enrolled in the public education system.

It was early August, and my son, headed to kindergarten in a few days, was full of nerves. Although my husband and I constantly reassured him that all would be well, he still had his 5-year-old doubts.

One day, he asked a question that came from out of left field: “Will my teacher be brown?”

I paused thoughtfully and said, “No, not this year, but she will be very nice.”

I teach in my son’s district, so I know that if the staff at his school remains the same, he won’t have any black male teachers throughout elementary school. If he goes to the middle school where I taught last year, he might have one black male teacher, in history class. If he attends the high school next door, he might take classes from the one black male who teaches business computers.

The truth is: it’s highly likely that my son will go through all of his public schooling without having a single black male teacher. And that goes for many of his peers.

Recent statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics found that, among public school educators teaching from 2007 – 08, 83% of public school teachers were white, 7% were black or Hispanic, 1% were Asian or of two or more races, and less than one percent were Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaska Native.

I am deeply, personally moved to advocate for a more diverse teaching population because of the experiences of my son and husband. However, I am professionally invested as well.

Teachers and administrators cannot, and should not, ignore the fact that a number of important voices are missing from the education conversation when we don’t have a diverse teaching force. By design, each human being provides a unique and valuable perspective of the world. We need as many of those as we can get to solve the problems facing our public schools.

Our profession wants and needs teachers who are committed to student achievement regardless of their race. I believe that wholeheartedly as a teacher and a parent.

Let’s look at three ways both teachers and students benefit from a diverse teaching force:

  1. When teachers engage with colleagues from different backgrounds, they learn and grow as both individuals and professionals. Win.
  2. Students get the same benefits—and they also get a broad range of positive role models from different backgrounds. Win.
  3. When students of color see teachers of color, they might be better able to imagine themselves as future educators. This will help us meet the urgent need for a diverse teaching force. Win.

Win. Win. Win.

So, as educators, what can we do from here? How can we better understand this problem and recruit more people of color to our profession?

  • Seek out the perspectives of your colleagues, especially those of color. Ask them what they think about the lack of diversity in teaching and why they became teachers. Start conversations in your building and district about the issue. If there aren’t any educators of color in your school building, connect with them through social media.
  • If you see a student of color in your class who exhibits qualities that would make him or her a great teacher, encourage them. They may never have considered teaching as a career option.
  • Play an active role in your local Future Educators Association. Encourage student members to invite diverse groups of their peers to meetings. No FEA near you? Start a chapter.

I once read the phrase: “You can’t be what you don’t see.”  Donald Nicolas used it is his Education Week post, “Where Are the Black Male Teachers?

It’s true that children of color benefit from positive role models who can relate to their life and cultural experiences. But it’s equally true that all of our children need to understand that the world has seven billion perspectives, each of them unique and important.

As teachers, it’s our responsibility to help students become aware and empathetic citizens. That journey starts with our profession by showing students the richness and breadth of perspectives here in our own country. They will be better students and human beings for it.

Val Brown, M.Ed., is an educator in Seminole County, FL and a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory. You can connect with her on Twitter at @ValeriaBrownEDU.