This school year is the first in U.S. history where the majority of public school students are non-white. Long referred to as "minority," the term no longer applies.
This has huge implications for our schools and kids. As we seek to do more to support the learning and development of our most diverse group of American students yet, we face a major challenge. Today, while student demographics shift, our teaching force remains mostly white. African-American and Latino teachers comprise less than 15 percent of the teaching workforce. In over 40 percent of public schools there is not a single teacher of color. Working to close the teacher diversity gap stands as a critical element of our work to close the educational opportunity gap more broadly. As in all industries, we need leaders as diverse as the people they serve.
During a recent installment of "Ask Arne," a series where educators ask U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan critical questions about school-level issues, I discussed my experience working as a teacher in New York City to create a positive school culture—one that managed discipline in an unbiased and constructive way, especially for young African-American boys. I also shared my belief that my presence as a black male educator was important for all kids, not just those who look like me.
When I taught kindergarten, for example, there was not a single African-American boy among my 56 students. As I watched my kids grow and develop, I couldn't help but wonder how their perspectives were being shaped by the negative portrayals of black men and boys in the media and all around. I saw it as part of my job as an educator to disrupt these perceptions and ensure that my students grew up without these limiting views of blackness. Educators have the powerful ability to share their stories to help students think about how they want to shape their paths.
But we don't have to stop there—we can bring in other leaders of color from the community to speak; we can assign books by authors from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences; we can bring elements of our students' culture into the classroom so that they know their identities are valued. On top of this, ensuring cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity creates powerful conditions for learning to work together—an essential skill in today's global 21st-century economy.
With this in mind, it's time to get serious about recruiting the teachers our kids need and keeping them in the classroom. Quality and diversity aren't two parallel objectives. They're deeply intertwined.
Across the country, we see promising examples of this. Organizations such as Teach For America and AmeriCorps are providing a steady stream of teachers who share the background of their students. Half of this year's corps members were people of color and over a third are the first in their families to graduate from college. With much work left to be done, efforts like this one point to what's possible.
In my own life, as a student, I had exactly one black male educator before I got to college. One. Mr. Shaw taught elementary school and was masterful at affirming the various parts of my identity that I only later realized had been previously so deeply and painfully ignored. He made me feel my development and learning mattered just as much as that of my 30-plus classmates. And as I came to feel this way, I came to imagine a future for myself—one that would ultimately look a lot like his. I became an educator, in part, because I saw a black male educator conspiring for my success, early on.
I remember Mr. Shaw's name. I always will. Who will remember yours?
The author is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Johns graduated from Columbia in 2004 with a triple major in English, creative writing, and African-American studies. He also holds a master's degree in sociology and educational policy from Teachers College.
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