First Person

Why creating opportunities for students of color to become teachers is important

The Colorado Department of Education recently published a study to explore the current landscape of teacher diversity in the state. The report, Keeping up with Kids: Increasing Minority Teacher Representation in Colorado, is a call to action.

The highlight of the report is the list of specific strategies to increase the recruitment and retention of teachers of color and why this is an important issue to address.

I sincerely hope that all stakeholders, from legislatures and policy makers to school district leaders and teacher preparation programs are planning to respond to that call.

I know I am.

Why? Teacher diversity matters for all students. As an associate professor at CU Denver, my scholarship centers on issues of diversity and equity in urban schools. Whenever I present my research at professional conferences around the country, I ask conference participants to think about and respond to this question, “what message is conveyed regarding the authority of knowledge and positions of power when students experience school with a predominantly white (and mostly female) teacher workforce?” Our conversations are lively and center on a few important themes including: students’ perceptions of whose voice matters and whose views count, students’ sense of belonging in school, and the need for all children to learn from and interact with teachers who bring a variety of perspectives and lived experiences to their classrooms.

A sad reality exists. Given that 90 percent of Colorado teachers are white, it is entirely possible for a Colorado student to go through her entire K-12 public school education and never have a teacher of color. The same student can continue her education and complete her BA, MA and PhD and still never have a teacher of color.

For these reasons and many more, I created the Pathways2Teaching program in 2010.

Pathways2Teaching is a concurrent enrollment program designed to engage high school students of color in exploring the teaching profession as an avenue for engaging with, giving back to, and righting wrongs within their communities. In collaboration with the University of Colorado Denver and high schools in Denver Public Schools and Adams County School District 14, the Pathways2Teaching program has served over 300 high school juniors and seniors over the last five years.

Our potential future teachers look vastly different from the current teacher demographics in Colorado. Nearly 60 percent of our current and former students are Latino/a, 35 percent African American and 42 percent male.

As the authors of Keeping up with Kids: Increasing Minority Teacher Representation in Colorado point out, there are a number of early outreach programs aimed at recruiting high school students into the teacher workforce. Not all, however, focus specifically on recruiting students of color. If we really want to diversify our teacher workforce and build effective early outreach programs, these programs must be culturally responsive. They must feature a curriculum specifically designed to engage students by explicitly pointing out why they are desperately needed as our future teachers – not just because of the color of their skin, but because of their lived experiences in the same communities that need them the most.

How? It is not always an easy sell. For many students of color, particularly those who live in poverty, schools do not always feel welcoming or safe. This is especially true for African American, Latino and Native American males. One only needs to examine national or state data by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status to see the disproportionate rates of school disciplinary actions, suspensions, special education placements, and lower graduation rates for students of color to better understand the level of disenfranchisement often felt by these students.

The marginalization students experience can become the catalyst for helping them understand how they can disrupt the inequities they have experienced. The Pathways2Teaching curriculum has an explicit focus on having students critically examine the complex educational issues and inequities that exist in poor, urban communities- the very issues that have contributed to the marginalization that they’ve experienced in schools.

Through the Pathways2Teaching program, students also learn about the importance of dedicated, culturally responsive teachers who come to school each day to empower students and make a difference in students’ lives. Students gain a better understanding of the important roles teachers of color play for all students as they read the published work of national scholars (and sometimes have the opportunity to interview these scholars via video conference calls).

Beyond the scholarship of effective teaching for diverse learners that students study, they get to experience it firsthand. The program incorporates a weekly field experience where students work in local elementary one day a week throughout the year. In fact, our research indicates that this experience is a significant factor in motivating high school students of color to seriously consider becoming a teacher. Students better understand that effective teaching is a complex task – one that involves content knowledge, culturally responsive pedagogy, and unwavering dedication – but above all “revolutionary love.”

The call to diversify our teacher workforce is clear and urgent. I know we have a lot of work to do. The Pathways2Teaching program is one small contribution to answering this call.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.