The 100 Year Old Conversation: Let’s Diversify

In 2016, the conversation around teacher diversity has become commonplace, insomuch that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) hosted its first national summit on this topic, May 6, 2016.  While hosting such a summit is noteworthy, having this dialogue now may be too late, considering the lack of teacher diversity has been conventional for more than a century.

Not to discredit ED’s efforts in having this summit, but when the National Education Association (NEA) published a report in 2014 highlighting the fact that 20 years ago (now 22 years ago), state- and national-level affiliates were in discourse about addressing the lack of teacher diversity; maintaining optimism is hard to fathom.  NEA also made mention how this focus is considerably muted on these levels nowadays.  Helping teachers become more culturally competent, was also mentioned in the NEA publication.

Traveling to Washington, D.C. with other members of The Fellowship, we, and other participants were exposed to panel discussions and group breakout sessions that revolved around examining the need for teacher diversity.

I had negative thoughts about black people prior to being taught by one

“If it were not for you,” explained this year’s National Teacher of the Year Recipient, Jahana Hayes, as she reflected on what one of her White students said to her, in that the student indicated she was “thankful to have her as a teacher, because she had [negative thoughts] about Black people prior to being in her class,” is a testament to how impactful diversity is to this profession.

Although the comments mentioned by Hayes, who is a history teacher at the John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, CT were paraphrased for this article, her commentary during “The Need for Teacher Diversity Through Teachers’ Eyes,” panel session is pertinent, because of its contribution to the dialogue around the need for having a diverse teacher workforce.

In a recent article published by Harvard, titled, “Where Are All the Teachers of Color,” there is notation from the ED that there is disparity in the number of White teachers and teachers of color educating a predominantly nonwhite student-body in most of today’s public schools.  Specifically, with the expectation that this percentage will increase over time, the ED reported that 50 percent of public school students are nonwhite, coupled with results showing that 80 percent of their teachers are White.

These percentages are considered problematic, primarily because research has illuminated the positive influence of having teachers from similar racial and cultural backgrounds educating today’s students.  Having higher expectations, being able to establish organic relationships, and utilizing pedagogical practices that are culturally applicable are some of the perceived benefits associated with having teachers of color leading our nation’s classrooms.

Despite the overwhelming research calling for diversity, we still lack it

The impact of culturally relevant pedagogy to improve minority students’ learning outcomes was highlighted by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings in the 1990s and will be explained in further detail in the next part of this series of articles focusing on teacher diversity.

In the interim, Wil Del Pilar, Ph.D., who was in attendance at this year’s national summit on teacher diversity, perceived this event as “long over-due, [considering that] this is [the] work we [policy makers, academic practitioners, and the like] should have been engaged in and incentivizing years ago.”  Dr. Pilar, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education Acting Deputy Secretary of Postsecondary and Higher Education also expressed his fears about starting this important conversation now, and what this could mean in the near future.

To read more about Dr. Billings and Dr. Pilar’s perspective on this subject, stay tuned for Part II of this monthly series on Teaching to Teacher Diversity.

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Kenneth D. Waters

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