Only 17% of the nation’s teaching force is comprised of teachers of color while over 49% of students are from minority groups. In some cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, over 80% of students are minorities. And although we continue to prepare and recruit more teachers of color into the profession every year, the gap continues to grow. Minority teachers are leaving the profession at higher rates than other teachers due to the stress of working in high-need, under-resourced schools, as well as feelings of isolation, low pay, and lack of leadership opportunities. These problems and more were on full display at this year’s AERA Annual Meeting, whose theme was “Public Scholarship to Promote Diverse Democracies.”
While at AERA, I attended multiple paper sessions and roundtable discussions on preparing teachers of color to teach in minority and high-needs public schools. The themes ranged from preparing teachers to use culturally relevant pedagogy and advocate for students of color to issues surrounding the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. Many of the speakers and moderators hailed from Minority Serving Institutions such as Rita Kohli at the University of California, Riverside and Danielle Lansing at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. Others, such as Tyrone Howard at the University of California, Los Angeles and Richard Milner, at the University of Pittsburgh, are leaders in the field of minority teacher education and culturally relevant pedagogy.
In a roundtable discussion titled “Racialized Lives and Bodies of Teachers,” for example, Rita Kohli discussed her current research with 344 teachers in an urban school district in the California Bay Area. Through surveys and qualitative interviews, Kohli found vast differences in how white teachers and teachers of color experienced their teaching placements. When asked about the extent to which they felt supported by administrators in their school, 33% of teachers of color responded “not at all” in contrast to only 9% of white teachers. Similarly, when asked to what extent they felt valued by other teachers on the staff, 27% of teachers of color said “not at all” in contrast to only 3% of white teachers. When asked if they felt connected to their peers, 27% of teachers of color responded “not at all” in contrast to 2% of white teachers.
These differences were common across questions about school leadership and job promotion, leading many new teachers of color to question whether they will stay in the profession at all. As one teacher noted: “Sometimes, I consider not teaching anymore. Not having any mentorship or support has made me question myself and why I became a teacher . . . I feel I am operating in complete isolation and I’m exhausted.” As Rita Kohli suggests, “As we diversify the teaching force, we do very little to shift the culture of schools. We need to better understand the racial climate we are recruiting teachers of color into.”
In a panel titled “Knowledge Keepers as Public Intellectuals: Indigenous Perspectives Towards Nation Building and Democracy,” scholars discussed the importance of preparing teachers to work in indigenous schools, where issues of family, community, and tribal culture are an essential part of the curriculum and ethos of teaching. Indeed, the issue of building stronger and more aligned relationships between universities, schools, and minority communities was raised in many presentations across AERA. Teacher educators at a variety of panels described pre-service teaching immersion programs, such as the STEP-UP program at the University of Illinois, Chicago where teacher candidates spend four weeks over the summer teaching in urban schools and doing community internships while living with families in the community.
Despite the importance of educational diversity, I left AERA with the impression that our current model of education does not adequately value or support minority teachers. For example, Lisa Bennett, Cathy Yun, and Laura Alamillo from California State University, Fresno discussed standardized tests as a barrier for high quality teacher candidates from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds. According to Bennett, Yun, and Alamillo, these tests can be so expensive that it is not unusual for minority teacher candidates to have to choose between taking the test and paying their rent. Cultural bias on the testing questions also often mean that minority candidates do not do well on these tests, despite strong evidence that they go on to become effective and caring teachers for minority students.
More needs to be done to cultivate, support, and retain these teachers. Researchers stress that teachers of color are instrumental for the success of students of color, many of which attend underserved schools in low-income, immigrant, and ESL communities. It has been found that minority teachers not only serve as role models for students who have been marginalized by the educational system, but they also tend to create classrooms where students’ own cultural histories are acknowledged and appreciated. These teachers have high expectations for all students, reject deficit models of teaching and learning, and welcome families into school’s community and classroom.
As the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI) enters the third year of its initiative to support and expand teacher education programs at MSIs, we are looking forward to October 2016 when we’ll have our National Convening on Success in Teacher Education at Minority Serving Institutions, where teacher educators and prospective teachers from MSIs around the country will share their models of success. With generous funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Educational Testing Service, CMSI has been doing collaborative research with teacher education programs at California State University, Fresno; Stone Child College; Jackson State University; and New Mexico State, Las Cruces. In addition, each of these schools was given a $50,000 capacity building grant from CMSI. With this money, these institutions have been developing new models of university-school partnerships, enriching student teaching and clinical practice, expanding coursework on cultural diversity and educational equity, working to align teaching practices with the Common Core, and helping prospective teachers to pass high-stakes exams which allow them to get their certification and begin teaching in high-needs schools.
Helping Minority Serving Institutions just might be the best way to address some of the worrisome surrounding minority teachers. All I can say is that, for me, my experience at this year’s AERA further confirmed this to be true.
Alice E. Ginsberg is Assistant Director for Research at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She also teaches urban education and teacher research in Penn’s Teach for America masters program.