Helping to solve the educational diversity gap

Across the state, including in Edmonds, school districts struggle with supporting teachers of color
By Sean Moore/For the Beacon | Feb 09, 2018

In a state so obsessed with fighting President Trump and seeming progressive, perhaps it’s time we take a look inward at ourselves, particularly at our school districts.

Washington state has among the largest gaps between the number of students of color and teachers of color. Within the state, 44 percent of students are nonwhite, compared to just barely 10 percent of teachers who are.

For context, over the last 25 years, the numbers of minority teachers has doubled nationwide – but only to a paltry 17.3 percent.

The diversity gap exists in almost every school district in the state – whether they’re east or west, red or blue. In the Yakima School District, for example, almost 74 percent of students are Hispanic, but just 16 percent of teachers are, while in the Seattle School District, 18.5 percent of students are black, but only 7.3 percent of teachers are.

Furthermore, the gap has only grown as the amount of minority students has increased three times faster than the number of minority teachers.

In my home school district, the Edmonds School District, which is one of the largest in the Seattle area, the student body is majority minority, but the teachers and administration in the district are 91 percent white.

Support for minority teachers

The Edmonds Educators of Color Network is a group founded to help support minority teachers in the Edmonds School District with the goal of recruiting, retaining and supporting educators of color, according to Kanoe Vierra, an educator of color in the district and one of the members of the group.

When it comes to the first goal of recruiting, minority teachers face difficulties even at the beginning of the process.

“Like many things in our culture, (the whole hiring practice) is predominantly European-based,” said Michael Cook, an educator of color in the Edmonds School District and another member of the Edmonds of Educators of Color Network.

“When there's 9 percent of your teacher population that are teachers of color, the odds of you getting a teacher of color on your interview team are almost zero.”

Despite this statistical disparity, some gains are being made in hiring, mainly that more minority teachers nationwide were hired in recent years than white teachers. But that’s only part of the problem. The racial gap is also coming from a higher turnover rate for minority teachers.

“That's all it is, recruiting,” Vierra said. “Nothing is said about retention.”

This high rate attrition is growing out of the additional obstacles many teachers of color face. For example, national studies have shown organization factors, such as access to decision-making and classroom autonomy, play a huge role. Teachers from nonwhite cultures also face significant challenges in a system that is overwhelmingly white.

“When you see someone of a different culture, they don’t do things the way you do,” Cook said. “So when administrators, who are pretty much all white, what happens is they say (teachers from a different culture) are not any good.”

A lack of support and isolation from other staffers are also common issues. Vierra recounted how important having mentorship and support – which was rare for most teachers of color in the past, and almost nonexistent now – was for him.

“My first year I was assigned a mentor,” Vierra said. “She worked with me that first year and has remained in contact with me off and on over the years. That kind of support and help when I needed it meant more to me than somebody just saying the words.”

To help fight this isolation, one idea from the Edmonds Educators of Color Network is to re-establish a mentoring program for new educators of color.

“What if we got people who were interested in mentoring to stay by those first-, second-, third-year teachers, especially teachers of color, knowing that they’re going to face some battles and they’re going to face some struggles?” Vierra said. “A cadre of mentors.”

However, despite having support and community, one additional obstacle that teachers of color face is outright hostility.

“I have been told by an administrator, ‘If you want to continue in my school, you need to cut your hair, get rid of your Indian jewelry, start wearing a white shirt and a tie, (and) you need to start talking like us and looking like us,’” Cook said, referring to an incident in the early ’90s.

“And I said, ‘Are you telling me I need to be more white if I want to work here?’ and he said, ‘Exactly.’”

The diversity gap also has consequences for the students. Studies have shown that having a diverse group of teachers is good for the student body, especially minority students. This finding is also reflected anecdotally: Vierra recounted a story of when he asked a number of students of color why they hung out his classroom during lunch.

“They laughed and one of the kids goes, ‘You tell him,’ and the other kid goes, ‘No, you tell him,’” Vierra recounted.

“‘Tell me what?’” Vierra asked.

The students told him: “The reason we hang out in your classroom – you really want to know why? How many teachers are on this staff that look like you?”

Vierra responded, “Not too many, maybe one.”

“And how many look like us?” the students asked.

“Just one, maybe,” he said.

“That’s why.”

Clearly, this isn’t a problem with an easy solution. Nevertheless, it’s unacceptable.

Change has to come from multiple places in the districts as to how we educate, hire, and support future teachers of color. The diversity gap is growing with each generation, as fewer young people of color are becoming teachers.

The state of Washington has declared that its paramount duty is to provide a quality education to all its students, and the need is to assure that the education system works for all students and all teachers – not just the white ones.

Sean Moore, who graduated from Edmonds-Woodway High School in 2016, is a sophomore at the University of Washington, where he wrote this for the Daily, the university’s newspaper. Reach him at opinion@dailyuw.com.

 

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