by Alexis Mburu and Layla Ismail
As we’ve entered a new school year — one with unprecedented experiences, dynamics, and reckonings — something remains the same. Students of marginalized identities are constantly being disenfranchised in our current education system. This is well demonstrated when we look at the ways Black and Indigenous students are pushed out of classrooms. Not seeing themselves represented — whether it be figuratively in the content and curriculum of the classroom or literally in the staff and teaching force of the school — is one of those ways.
Our year of virtual learning taught us that teachers are definitely amongst a group of real-life superheroes. Yet that doesn’t mean all teachers were equally effective. Culturally responsive teachers of all backgrounds came through this year, but that doesn’t mean the opposite end of that spectrum didn’t also exist. In Washington State, around 50% of the student population are students of color, however they are served by only about 10% teachers of color. This disparity may not seem like a big deal but when we account for the immense influence teachers have on students, both positive and negative, it is important we make sure there are teachers able to tend to the growth of thousands of students coming from all different backgrounds. The benefits of hiring and retaining more BIPOC teachers are well researched and doing so results in increased family engagement, higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and more.
The harm that occurs when white teachers, without the self awareness of their privilege and implicit biases, teach BIPOC students is detrimental to communities everywhere. Feeling uncomfortable around and having an inability to relate to teachers while also facing microaggressions from them can often be considered a norm. The sad reality is Black youth across the nation can likely count on one hand how many Black teachers they’ve had. In fact, data shows there are only 11 thousand Black teachers for the 7 million Black students in public schools in the U.S. right now.
When we say we need more teachers of color it is not to put down anyone. It is only to highlight that there are multiple ways to show up for students, and to offer safe spaces for them, while acknowledging it is impossible for one person, or type of person, to show up for every student. A study by Inside Higher Ed conducted in 2020, shows that Black students, due to their higher chance of having “adverse childhood experiences,” end up experiencing imposter syndrome and other internal barriers that limit their success toward higher education and even make getting a high school degree more difficult. Factoring all of this in, having more Black teachers becomes even more important because of the value shared experiences have on humans. Having the teacher population reflect the student population allows for more safe and organic growth and relationships to form which contributes to a better overall learning experience; something a lot of people aren’t afforded and need the most.
White students can also be the students who need BIPOC representation the most. By providing exposure to different upbringings and diverse perspectives, the retention of BIPOC teachers only furthers civic engagement and critical thinking in classrooms for everyone.
We can’t keep the concept of equal representation in education in the abstract though. Yes, the education system is built against marginalized communities, but those systems are controlled by people and the people are the ones who need to do better by said communities. Keeping school districts accountable for equitable recruitment and hiring practices that reach beyond performative quota marks is pivotal in actual change making. Just having a few People of Color on your staff is not enough when the overall toxic culture pushes them out just like it does students. There are damaging effects on the teachers of color who work in these isolating buildings, experiencing the same biases and microaggressions as students. Retention is the key word. Developing effective strategies for retention ensures we are not only working to combat the surface level issues, but finding the roots and making long-term change.
Our most important message is that representation matters and it goes a long way. One Black teacher, Latino/Latina doctor, or Indigenous American lawyer can set the pace for a more inclusive and truly exemplary future working force.
Alexis Mburu is a high schooler in Tukwila, Washington. She is a member of the NAACP Youth Council and on the Advisory Board for Washington Ethnic Studies Now. She is a part of the Tukwila Children’s Foundation as well as a co-facilitator for her district’s Race and Equity Committee.
Layla Ismail is a high school student located in Seattle, Washington. She is a member of the NAACP Youth Council, Beauty in Our Community, Youth4ShukriOlow, and more. She is passionate about advocating for Women in STEM, advocacy, and more.
📸 Featured Image: By Kwame Amo/Shutterstock.
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