Photographs by Walter Smith
Where Are All the Teachers of Color?
All teachers are white. That’s what Estefania Rodriguez believed as a kid going to school in Hartford, Connecticut.
When she was four years old, she and her family fled violence in their native Colombia and moved to the United States. “Pretty much life or death,” she says. Her father, a bench jeweler (“My dad fixes jewelry; I don’t have any”), and housekeeper mother settled in Hartford. “Housing projects, very dangerous neighborhoods. I know what gunshots sound like,” says Rodriguez, who is getting her master’s in the Learning and Teaching Program. Her favorite thing was going to the library with her mother. “We didn’t have a lot,” Rodriguez says, “but I always had books.”
One thing she never had, as far as she can remember, is a white classmate. “I don’t want to exaggerate,” she says, “but I don’t think there was spone in the schools I went to.” It was nearly the opposite with teachers. Her kindergarten teacher was a Puerto Rican woman who spoke Spanish and English, but “besides that, all teachers were white in elementary school, all of them were white in middle school other than, I believe, my PE teacher. In high school, same trend,” Rodriguez says.
In public schools today, minority students are — well, it’s probably time to stop referring to them as the minority. According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 50 percent of the public school student population is nonwhite (a percentage that’s expected to increase for years to come). The statistic that concerns many, from the federal government to states to districts to schools to individual teachers, is that 80 percent of public school teachers are white. Why does it matter if most minority students have white teachers? For starters, a Center for American Progress study titled America’s Leaky Pipeline for Teachers of Color reports that minority teachers have higher expectations of minority students, provide culturally relevant teaching, develop trusting relationships with students, confront issues of racism through teaching, and become advocates and cultural brokers.
Lecturer Sarah Leibel, a master teacher in charge of the English/language arts strand and overall recruiting for the Ed School’s new Harvard Teacher Fellows (HTF) Program, mentions how, in literature, students need “mirrors and windows,” meaning they can see them themselves in stories and also experience unfamiliar worlds. “I see people similarly,” she says, noting that in her recruiting for HTF, they actively look for a diverse cohort of students who will then become teachers. “It’s really important that students have people who reflect back to them their language, their culture, their ethnicity, their religion. It doesn’t mean all the people in their lives have to do that mirroring, but they should have some. And we know that in the teaching profession, there really are not enough mirrors.”
In other words, not enough role models. “When I was a teacher in the Bronx, I would get off the train with my little tie on and my khakis and would walk into the neighborhood to go to the school,” says Lecturer Eric Shed, director of HTF. “Everybody else with a suit and tie was going the opposite way, to hop on the train to go to downtown Manhattan to go make some money. That image of a man of color walking into this neighborhood to serve the community has subtle but unbelievably profound effects.”
Edverette Brewster, also a master’s student in the Learning and Teaching Program, has his own tie story from his time as a middle school English teacher in Boston. During one “switch-up day,” students came to school dressed like their teachers. “There were so many kids wearing bowties like mine,” he says, laughing. “Even if they don’t even realize it at the time, your students are always watching your moves. I’m very cognizant of that and always watching what I’m doing” — to the point that he would never buy a bottle of wine in the neighborhood. “If I did, it would have to be a covert operation; I’d have to wear a hoodie so the kids don’t see Mr. Brewster walking into a liquor store,” he says.
Rodriguez focused on social studies education at Boston University as an undergraduate and, most recently, taught middle school social studies at a turnaround school, what she describes as “the lowest-achieving school for over 25 years in Hartford,” where 100 percent of students were black or Latino and qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. “I really wanted to do this for my community. It’s my home,” she says. “As dedicated and passionate as my white teachers were, there was always that last layer that they never understood, which comes with life experiences and cultural background. I don’t ever make the argument that only teachers of color can teach students of color. Not at all. But eventually you realize, wow, there are a lot of things I was never taught. You start to realize your people have a history and a story in this country, and so do blacks and Asians and pretty much every ethnic minority.”
As a student at the Ed School, she wanted to learn how “to fix this problem of not having teachers of color.” She knows some of the challenges, like how black and Latino students are far less likely to graduate from high school or college or pass teacher-certification exams than their white counterparts, which results in a shallower candidate pool. Still, she wonders: How do you recruit teachers? And, once you do, how do you support them so they don’t leave the profession?
Like many districts, Boston Public Schools (BPS) has initiatives to encourage minorities to become teachers (14 percent of bps students are white, compared with more than 60 percent of bps teachers). Assistant Superintendent of Human Capital Emily Kalejs Qazilbash, ED.M.’97, ED.D.’09, mentions recruitment trips to historically black colleges and universities, a “community-to-teacher” program that offers college graduates with a four-year degree a pathway to becoming teachers, getting successful high school students to consider careers in the classroom, and hiring teachers beginning in March instead of the summer like many other districts. “It’s not quite chicken-and-egg, but it’s a cycle,” she says. “You’re a black student or you’re a Hispanic student, you don’t really see black or Hispanic teachers, so it’s not really on your mind to go into teaching. We say the pithy statement, ‘You can’t be what you don’t see.’”
Professor Susan Moore Johnson, M.A.T.’69, Ed.D.’81, and her colleagues at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, including Nicole Simon, Ed.M.’12, Ed.D.’15, and Stefanie Reinhorn, Ed.M.’13, Ed.D.’15, interviewed 142 teachers and administrators in six high-achieving but high-poverty schools in Massachusetts. “One school was having trouble recruiting teachers of color because the teachers of color they had were leaving, so then the remaining teachers would feel isolated and leave too,” she says. “In schools that have very few teachers of color, they are treated — the word token is really alarming to a lot of people, so I’m careful about using it. But it means that individual teachers are being asked to speak for an entire race.” (One of the interviewees said being the sole black male teacher “almost feels like I’m in someone else’s house, intruding.” Another, talking about recruiting strategies, mentioned looking for clues on resumes. “We would be like, ‘Oh, my God, I think this is a person that … look at her last name! She speaks Spanish! Let’s try to get her in here right away.’”)
A study released last September, The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education by the Albert Shanker Institute, examined nine cities across the country and found that only in Los Angeles were minority teachers the majority. Historically, the gulf wasn’t always so vast. Before Brown v. Board of Education, primarily black teachers taught black students. Following the 1954 ruling that desegregated public schools, however, many schools serving black students closed, and those students started attending schools that had been white only. Tens of thousands of black teachers and principals were out of work.
By the late 1980s, the Ford Foundation, partnering with the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, made a widely cited commitment of more than $60 million for recruiting minority teachers. And it helped — a bit: Today, the federal government and more than half of all states have initiatives in place to recruit minorities to teach in public schools. The challenge is keeping them in the profession. According to one estimate, some 47,600 minorities became teachers in 2003–04. Unfortunately, by the end of the school year, more than 56,000 minority teachers overall had left the profession. And that, many say, is a big part of the problem.
As the Shanker Institute study points out, “It makes no sense to put substantial effort into recruiting minority candidates to teach in schools serving disadvantaged students if large numbers of those same teachers then leave those schools in a few years.”
Johnson agrees. “We’ve made progress over the last 15 years in recruiting more teachers of color, but I think the real story is that turnover becomes this big undertow,” she says. “Virtually everybody concludes that this has to do with the fact that high-minority schools — which is where teachers of color want to be — are on average more dysfunctional as organizations.” Johnson says minorities who are unhappy in their schools are more likely to leave the profession than white teachers, who are more inclined to transfer to wealthier schools. “I think it’s really important to keep it clear that there are really successful schools serving high-poverty student populations that actually are supportive workplaces,” Johnson says. “It’s just, there aren’t enough of them.”
While growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Brewster always imagined he was an elementary school teacher like his mom, with his Power Rangers figurines morphing into his students. “Weird, I know,” the 25-year-old says, laughing. Yet for a sixth-grade project about careers he picked … law. “Usually when people label you as smart, your career options become lawyer or doctor or engineer,” he says.
Brewster studied public policy at Vanderbilt and then planned to do a two-year Teach For America (TFA) stint before attending law school. TFA took him to Boston. He never got around to the whole law school thing. “Yes, I want my students to write better,” Brewster says, “but a lot of the reason I became a teacher was to show them there is an alternate reality to some of the things they’re dealing with.
“I think it’s important for students to see people who look like them. It’s going to be easier for them to listen or understand where a person is coming from, to a certain degree. But any teacher — no matter the race or age — you have to build relationships and get to know your students. I think that’s why I’ve had success. Not just because I’m black.”
Rodriguez says she was more “second mom” than “history teacher” at her school in Hartford. “I wish I could say I stuck to teaching, but I’ve had to help students get through really traumatic experiences, just kind of giving them the love and attention they require in the moment,” she says. “And when I did teach, I really didn’t teach history because my students couldn’t read. I had to incorporate literacy skills and math skills and science skills into my lessons because the students were failing in so many different areas.” Choosing education as a career baffled her parents. “My dad, he always said that teaching was important work, but his expectations were higher: ‘You’re going to be a teacher? You could be an astronaut!’” she says.
“People think of medicine and engineering as these highly professional careers that involve a lot of training, a lot of knowledge, a lot of intelligence, a lot of integrity,” Leibel says, “but people don’t always think of teaching that way. The more that we can do to show people that teaching is complex, that’s it’s admirable, and that it’s really a profession that involves a lot of skills and knowledge, the more we can raise the standard for what teaching looks like and who’s attracted to it.” Or as Brewster puts it: “I think paying teachers more money could attract more people to the profession, but I don’t think anybody will solve this problem until, on a global scale, there’s an appreciation for the craft of teaching.” Rodriguez says that, too often, “one exceptional kid is labeled as the one who’s going to make it out of the ’hood. Why would that person become a teacher? There has to be an understanding that this is a profession that takes you into the community to do good work. Unfortunately, success is usually framed by what kind of job can get you out of the community.
“There is this connotation that, as a person of color, you’re already less intelligent, so of course you would go into work that people perceive as not as hard compared to being a doctor or lawyer,” Rodriguez says. “I’ve struggled with that. I’ve had to prove or argue how I’m in education because I’m a woman of color, not because I’ve settled on education. I actually chose education.”
With the new HTF Program, following an intensive summer training program, the 20 Harvard College graduates in the first class of fellows will take teaching residencies at urban public schools in Brooklyn, New York; Denver; and Oakland, California, then make a four- to seven-year commitment to stay in the classroom. “By making this a high-profile program where Harvard College students — ‘the best of the best’ — are committing to this career, we think it can have a profound ripple effect and implication about what it means to be a teacher,” Shed says.
Having spent the last year at Harvard as a student, Brewster says, “It’s so much easier than teaching because I’m only concerned about myself for a year and not 50 students.”
Teacher “burnout,” he says, “is real.”
It’s easy to see why as Brewster describes his job title at his middle school: “English teacher, counselor, mentor, father, spiritual adviser.” (Shed mentioned a similar list from one of the readings in the course he taught this past spring: “One of the authors says, ‘Teachers must be expert psychologists, cops, rabbis, priests, judges, gurus, and, paradoxically, students of our students.’”) Brewster would knock on doors after answering a phone call from a parent saying, “I don’t know where my child is. Can you please help?” Driving students to and from school, giving them money for food, mentoring boys who were never even in his class. “I’m not their parent, but I feel responsible,” Brewster says. He calls one former student his son. “He goes to church with me on Sundays. He got baptized last year,” he says. But “there were days when I’m in the [school] parking lot like, ‘I can’t do this.’ But I’d say, ‘If I don’t do this, who will?’”
Rodriguez says she cooked meals, purchased winter coats, helped parents fill out job applications, visited juvenile detention centers, attended funerals. “I don’t think these things don’t happen in more affluent schools, but this was like a daily thing,” she says. When she got to the Ed School, she realized, “I don’t have any money in savings. Where did it all go? Oh, my students.”
She points out that while all of the students in her school in Hartford were black or Latino, she estimates she was one of only five minority teachers. “Five teachers out of an entire building is just not enough,” she says. “If you’re the only teacher of color in a school, you become the house mom for all the students of color. It’s not sustainable if there’s one of you to meet the needs of so many.” Plus, being labeled the “Latina teacher” gave her a sense that she needed to outperform her colleagues, who were mostly white, middle-class women. Rodriquez was athletic director, coached basketball and volleyball, ran student council, and wrote curriculum for the district.
William Hayes, Ed.M.’08, is principal of a Camden, New Jersey, charter middle school, and he understands the challenges affecting teachers in high-poverty urban schools. Some of his students are in gangs or victims of sexual assault or have witnessed drug usage. “Any murder that occurs in the city of Camden, it’s likely that our students are one to two degrees of separation away from the person who was the victim,” he says.
One way to prevent minority teacher burnout, Hayes says, is to make sure one or two people aren’t shouldering the social-justice load. At his school, white, black, and Latino/bilingual teachers each make up a third of the staff. The front office workers are Latino. Assistant principals are black, white, male, female. “I think it’s important that staff can have a personal connection with students,” Hayes says. “As a black male, I have experienced what it is to go out into society and nobody cares what you know, to go into college and it’s assumed you don’t know much, or to have people make stereotypical comments. Those are things that aren’t going to be written into the literature books or the math books, but they need to be part of the conversation. We’re not afraid to articulate: You are black, you are Latino; it’s not going to be easy for you, but we want you to be successful despite living in a society that doesn’t necessarily honor that.”
Johnson says that, in general, the issues of the workplace that matter — to teachers of all races — are much the same: strong principal, instructional autonomy, decision-making influence. “I don’t think districts for the most part are successful because they deal with the issue of diversity itself apart from the other challenges of making sure that all their schools work well for all kids,” she says.
In December, Hayes and colleagues in Detroit and Washington, D.C., incorporated the Philadelphia-based Fellowship, an alliance of black educators that will organize a convening four times a year. More than 120 participants signed up for the first one held last year. Some discussed what it was like, in Hayes’ words, “to be the sole advocate for students of color at their school. It was an opportunity to think, share, and vent. And also to motivate and encourage.” Across the country, there are other groups. One in Boston called meoc, or Male Educators of Color. There’s the mister Initiative (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) in South Carolina, the Minority Teacher Identification and Enrichment Program in Illinois, Teach Tomorrow in Oakland, and too many others to list. The federal government’s teach campaign, which included recruitment visits to colleges campuses like Morehouse by film director Spike Lee, has a goal of recruiting 1 million teachers in the next 10 years, with an emphasis on diversity. Hayes even met with Secretary of Education John King last November about how better to recruit and retain minority teachers. “In some instances,” Hayes says, “this movement is in its grassroots phase. But all students, white students — I think that this country — can benefit by viewing people of color in positions of power that they trust and respect and grow to love.”
For exactly this reason, writes Gloria Ladson-Billings, a black professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in a recent essay in Ed Week, “There is something that may be even more important than black students having black teachers, and that is white students having black teachers. It is important for white students to encounter black people who are knowledgeable. What opportunities do white students have to see and experience black competence?”
And white students, Rodriguez says, are ready. She mentions a friend, a minority teacher in an affluent district, who teaches her white students about racial inequality and institutional racism. “I say, ‘Wait, you did a lesson on what?’ But white students want to talk about these issues.”
Looking ahead, Brewster recently agreed to return to his school in Dorchester for at least a year after graduating. That’s as much as he knows right now. But there is that pull. He mentions a minority friend who teaches in the suburbs. She has told him about the guilt she deals with because she left a high-poverty school for a more affluent one. “I left my kids, and I don’t feel OK with that sometimes,” she’ll tell him. Has he considered a similar move to a suburban school? “Honestly? I don’t know if I could. I really don’t.” But has he thought about it? “It’s something I have possibly thought about, yes.”
Johnson, the Harvard professor, pauses when asked if minorities will make up a larger percentage of public school teachers 10 years from now. “I don’t even know how to answer that. I honestly don’t,” she says. “It’s not gone in a good direction lately. And I don’t feel at all confident that public education is going to attract and retain teachers of color unless schools where they want to teach become better places for them to work.”
Rodriguez says she isn’t sure what she’ll do after graduating from Harvard. “My heart’s in the classroom, but my role as a teacher for the last four years was unsustainable,” she says. “I’d hate to be one of those statistics, one of those teachers of color who burn out.” Many of her Harvard colleagues are also from low-achieving state turnaround schools. “We’re all thinking, ‘Can I go back into the classroom? Or should I make an impact in education some other way?’”
Read The Challenges of Recruiting and Hiring Teachers of Color by Simon, Johnson, and Reinhorn.