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.

  • BillIvey

    Thank you

    … for this great post. It reminds me, too, of a conversation we had yesterday at a conference I attended. It didn’t start out being about race, but it later expanded to include race.

    A young teacher who was lesbian said she felt there were kids in her school who had the need for an open role model, someone like them to whom they could speak about their lives. Yet, she was unclear on where she should and where she wanted to draw the line between her personal life and her professional life. Among the advice given was not to feel the entire pressure of advocating for and supporting lesbian (and/or) gay students, that other teachers in her school needed to be stepping up and helping create an open and supportive culture. This thought provoked the comment that few if any schools of education prepare pre-service teachers from historically oppressed groups for these kinds of questions, and they should.

    As I type this, I realize schools of education need to prepare *all* pre-service teachers, whether of various privileges or not, for this important aspect of collegiality and student support. So, along with your suggestions, I would suggest that teachers can work to improve the current situation by advocating that schools of education acknowledge and address this issue.

    • ValBrownEdu

      Spot On

      Bill, thank you for engaging with me. I came to teaching as a second career, so I didn’t have the traditional pre-service experience. I started working on my master’s degree during my first year teaching, but even in a graduate degree program, I don’t think I was fully prepared or understood what role I should take as a black female teacher for students who sought me out because we had that in common. Being that model/ear/voice, can be a lot of pressure; especially if you are the only one (of your ‘kind’) in the school! We definitely have to prepare pre-service teachers for the possibility. 

  • JustinMinkel

    Wonderful post.

    Valeria, this piece is everything a blog post should be: honed in on an issue that’s critical for the well-being of kids, thoughtful and analytical about the benefits of progress related to that issue, backed up with the numbers, and gives us all concrete and constructive steps we can take to be a part of the progress that’s needed.

    As a (white) male teacher, I see many benefits of having more men in teaching, including the presence of male role models (i.e. conveying that men can be gentle and still be men, or the opportunity to model respectful interactions between men and women.)

    When it comes to race, I remember a moment from college when I was working in the classroom of a 5th grade teacher (he was white) who was teaching about slavery. One of the two African-American boys in the class kept putting his head down on the desk, and when the teacher asked what was wrong, he said, “I just can’t be hearing this.”

    The teacher realized that the context mattered–the student was in a mostly white class with a white teacher teaching the content. The teacher immediately went and got Todd, the only African-American male on staff, who had a one-on-one conversation with the student.

    Affirmative action is often painted either as lowering standards to increase diversity, or simply actively seeking out qualified applicants of color. But to me, an element of it is simply acknowleding what you pointed out: that bringing a needed (and scarce) perspective and identity to a college, company, or elementary school (as Todd did) is an asset to be considered alongside all the other skills, strengths, and experiences a candidate brings.

    For all Teach For America’s flaws, they have made solid progress as an organization at increasing the number of their corps members who share the racial identity of the students they teach.

    I love the quote, “We read to know we are not alone.” (Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers had great side-by-side pieces in the New York Times a few months back on the dearth of protagonists of color in children’s literature.) Characters in literature are powerful, but a daily presence in a child’s life is even more powerful.

    Final thought, related to Bill’s comment: I think sometimes we (white people) are reluctant to take your advice on seeking out colleagues of color’s perspective because we don’t want to seem like we’re asking an individual to speak for an entire group of people. I remember in my masters program every time race came up, you could feel the tension of everyone trying not to look at Kameelah, the only African-American student in our program. It seems a tricky line–acknowledging that we lack a perspective that a colleague can provide, but also conveying that we realize she/he will be offering insight as an individual, not as a spokesperson for an entire group of people with varying perspectives and experiences.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • ValBrownEdu

      Difficult Conversations

      Your post read like poetry. Thank you! 

      Growing up, I never thought much about what conversations about race would sound like in 2014, but I recognize they are still very difficult.

      How does a white male teacher teach slavery to a class of predominately white students without making the only black students feel uncomfortable? How does a black female teacher teach social injustice to a class of predominately white students without fearing that she sounds like she is on a soapbox? How do students genuinely ask questions of their peers from different backgrounds without fear of sounding ignorant? Why can’t we just talk? I don’t think there is a right way, wrong way (or apparently) a quick way to get good at this. Plus, I am pretty sure that if people have authentic conversations about race, someone will be unintentionally offended at some point. I don’t think that means people should stop talking. 

      I have been in your classmate’s (Kameelah) shoes all too often through college and career. (Trust me, if you are the only one in the room, even if the conversation is not about race, you still feel like you are speaking on behalf of the race.) The tension you mentioned gets old. As the only black person in the room, I hoped I was saying the right thing, in the right way, at the right time to represent my subgroup in a positive way. If someone had a question, I did my best to answer it and explain that was my experience, but it was not the same experience for everyone.

      There are times I was tired of carrying that burden. But what was my alternative? Remain silent? Then what? How about for a white male who has a question of me? What is his alternative? Not ask my perspective? Then what? 

      I personally would rather risk the difficult conversation. 

      Justin, this conversation was throroughly enjoyable! Please feel free to use me as a sounding board at any time.