“If not for the teachers that I had at PS 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island, New York, I would not be alive today. Maybe I’d be in jail today. But those teachers, they chose to invest in me and to see hope and possibility. Folks could have said, ‘Here’s a young African-American, Latino male student going to New York City Schools with a family in crisis. What chance does he have?’ They could’ve given up on me, but they didn’t. They chose to make school this place that was amazing and inspiring and engaging every day. This is what you can bring to students . . . That sense of possibility, that sense of hope, that opportunity to be a child, that opportunity to love and enjoy learning. That is the power that we have as educators, and I hope you will seize that moment. That you will see potential in each of your children.”
-Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., speaking at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® National Training
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has just completed a week of national training for nearly 2,000 college students and recent graduates preparing to teach in CDF Freedom Schools summer literacy programs across the country. Most come from the communities they serve and are role models for the children they serve. It is hard to dream of college and what you can be in the future if you don’t see it and we are so proud of the young, energetic, hardworking and committed servant leaders who spend very long hours preparing to serve more than 11,000 low–income children when they return home to 95 cities and communities in 27 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I hope many or most of them will become public school teachers who love, respect, and set high expectations for every child in their care. Since 1995 more than 17,000 college–aged students, public school teachers and juvenile detention personnel have come to CDF–Alex Haley Farm for training to teach in summer Freedom Schools. Many have gone on to become teachers, principals, administrators, college professors and more.
They are filling a great need. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. was among the extraordinary leaders who spoke to and inspired them this year. As our first Puerto Rican-African American Secretary of Education he spoke movingly of losing his mother at 8 and his father at 12 and how caring teachers saved his life and put him on the path to success. He graduated from Harvard University, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and Yale Law School. He stressed the crucial importance of building a strong multiracial and multicultural teacher pipeline to inspire and guide all of our children — especially those who are poor and non–White. Students of color constitute a majority in our schools but teachers of color constitute only 18 percent of their faculties. Unless we are able to encourage many more talented students and teachers of color to enter and stay in the profession, this “mismatch” will only get worse. In a Washington Post Op–Ed Secretary King noted, “We have strong evidence that students of color benefit from having teachers who are positive role models, as well as from the changes in classroom dynamics that result. Teachers of color often have higher expectations for students of color, are more likely to use culturally relevant teaching practices, are more likely to confront racism in their lessons and, yes, also serve as advocates.”
On May 6 Secretary King and the U.S. Department of Education held a National Summit on Teacher Diversity where education leaders, researchers, policymakers, teachers, and students spoke about the value of a diverse teaching force. Researchers noted that Black and Hispanic children in schools with high concentrations of Black and Hispanic teachers are less likely to be suspended, more likely to be recognized as better students and be placed in academically gifted classes, and more likely to graduate on time than those who attend schools with fewer diverse teachers.
Teachers and students shared personal examples of how having shared experiences could bolster child self-esteem and performance. Jahana Hayes, the National Teacher of the Year from Waterbury, Connecticut, grew up in poverty and became the first in her family to finish college and graduate school. She said her challenges ensured she will never give up on a student: “People often give up at the point students need them the most.”
Teachers of color are underrepresented compared to students of color in every state and a report released at the Summit by the Department of Education showed how the supply of teachers of color decreases at multiple points in the educator pipeline including enrollment in and completion of education programs, initial hiring, and retention. Seventy-eight percent of new teachers are White compared to 8 percent Black and 10 percent Hispanic. Only 2 percent of teachers are Black males. A strong case and call was made for getting students of color into the teacher pipeline, moving them through, and keeping them once they are in a school. The report noted that closing the completion rate between White and Black education majors could add another 300 Black bachelor’s degree completions for every 1,000 Black aspiring teachers.
Secretary King pointed out the “invisible tax” paid by teachers of color, especially males — often given extra tasks like planning cultural activities or mentoring or disciplining students of color. Adding these roles on top of standard responsibilities without extra support can lead to teacher burnout. Recent research by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) found more teachers of color are being hired than in the past but they are leaving more quickly than White teachers. Making the educator workforce much more diverse would help everyone.
Secretary King emphasized a more diverse workforce would be good not just for students of color but for all students: “It’s also important for our White students to see teachers of color in leadership roles in their classrooms and communities. Breaking down negative stereotypes helps all students learn to live and work in a multiracial society. Ultimately, the work we can do together to create opportunity for all students will determine not only the kind of economy we have and the kind of people we will be, but also whether we will become the nation we ought to be.” I could not agree more.