Commentary: Our Teachers Do Not Look Like Our Students

I recently saw a social media post that made me stop and think. It read, “Social Experiment: If you come across this tweet, reply with the grade you were in when you had your first Black male teacher.”

Immediately, I began scanning my memory and working on the math.

I had a high school PE teacher, a chemistry professor in between my associates and my bachelors, and one Ed Tech professor in my bachelors program.

That’s 3 teachers, and I’ve been in school almost 22 years (counting preschool to grad school), taught by over 95 different educators. To my memory, besides one online class in grad school, I have not had a black female teacher.

I grew up in a relatively large, diverse city. I went to highly diverse schools with students from around the world. And still, the vast majority of my teachers were white.

Not one classmate in my teacher preparation program was black. Only three students in my graduating class were Latinx.

No classroom teachers in my building are black. In fact, only one non-foreign language, non-English language learner classroom teacher identifies with an ethnicity other than White. None of our district office staff are black; the only high-level non-white district employee is the ELL coordinator. Here’s the district breakdown from Illinois Report Card:

And here is the ethnic breakdown of students in my district, also courtesy of IRC:

Over 50% of the students in my district will not regularly encounter or work with a staff member who looks like them. They do not see themselves reflected in our academic, educational environment. People who “do school” do not look like them, come from their background, or understand their culture. Over half our students will have this school experience.

In this regard, my district is not unusual.

In most of America, our teachers do not reflect our students. Not even close. I could explain quite a few different systemic reasons for that.

I could begin at the systemic inequities in teacher hiring practices.

But it might be more accurate to begin with the major systemic inequities in teacher preparation programs.

Or, it may further be accurate to point out the systemic inequities in college entrance and attendance and completion.

But that is predicated on the massive systemic inequities in K-12 education.

And those begin with the systemic inequities in access to quality childcare and preschool opportunities.

And even before that, deficits are created by inequitable access to nutrition, literacy, security, and basic necessities for too many families in a developed country in 2020.

But before a child even reaches that point, we must note the systemic inequities in prenatal care that allow non-white women to have far, far higher rates of miscarriage, birth issues, birth defects, etc. compared to white mothers.

Some of this inequitable care stems from a lack of resources and opportunities, and it stems from a lack of quality education.

Which takes us all the way back to college equity, K-12 equity, and the lost opportunities caused by a lack of teachers of color in our public school system.

This is a giant systemic cycle. Massive. And it’s been running nonstop for well over a century now.

The cycle must be broken if everyone is to have the same opportunities for success in life, if we are to truly call ourselves, “One nation, under god, with liberty and justice for all.” It’s not quick and it’s not easy, but working as educators to break the cycle of class, race, and gender-based systemic oppression is one of the most important things we could ever be a part of.

Public school teachers, college educators, parents and families- we have work to do. It is essential. We cannot remain passive and allow another generation of kids to be locked in this cycle, or we become willing contributors.

We must explore together the steps we can take to make a difference in the lives of our students and communities. We must be willing to have some very, very difficult conversations, complete with intensive self-reflection. We must actively encourage teacher preparation programs to seek diverse talent without sacrificing admissions standards, and we must explore the systemic practices that provide an easier path to teacher certification for people from middle-class and upper-class backgrounds. We must involve stakeholders at every level in our mission to diversify our schools and provide our students with mirrors as well as windows. In providing students with diverse role models daily in schools, students not only understand that education is for everyone, but students are also exposed to a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and cultures, creating a generation that will be more at home than ever in a diverse and welcoming society. This is the future our children deserve now. Together, we have work to do.

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