You reap what you sow when it comes to developing teachers. And overrepresentation of white teachers in public schools should make clear what current teacher preparation programs are built to yield. The supposed teacher shortage crisis is really an inability to cultivate black and brown talent that’s right in front of us in local classrooms.
The majority of students in public schools are minority but only 18 percent of teachers are people of color. That’s not by choice: In urban school districts, just as in suburban and rural ones, communities have students who aspire to be teachers. Call it what you will — racism, unconscious bias or color blindness — but understand that black and brown local students aren’t seen as potential teachers and that teachers of color work in conditions that discount them.
As a response to a lack of community representation in local schools, educators are looking to grow-your-own (GYO) programs — the latest jargon relating to recruiting and retaining local teachers — which attempt to address the failure to recruit and retain local teachers, who are in plain sight. Some programs are connected to universities, like Pathways2Teaching with the University of Colorado Denver. Others such as GYO Illinois are nonprofits that have university affiliations but are much more connected to the communities they serve.
GYO programs make educational, political and economic sense. Study after study has shown that students are likelier to learn from someone who looks like them, a neighbor rather than a stranger. A pale male teaching biology in a broad Boston accent may not inspire a black kid with a New Orleans drawl to follow in his footsteps. While there are certainly black teachers and leaders who have negative views of black children, research consistently shows that black teachers have higher expectations of them, which is a kind of a buffer for injustice. Teachers are also important members of the middle class and have influence in local politics, both pressing needs in black and brown communities.
To be clear, the country doesn’t have a teacher shortage across the range of subjects and grade levels. Rather, people of color don’t easily travel the teacher pipeline to reach districts with high concentrations of black, brown and low-income students, especially not to their science, math and special education classrooms.
Every single student in a classroom is a potential teacher. And many districts have several university neighbors with students who’ve spent four or more years in the community. The all-points bulletin for black teachers is really inaccurate. The numbers are there, but we’re not naming or fixing the common institutional practices that discourage black and brown students from pursuing teaching.
Harsh disciplinary policies that produce higher suspension and expulsion rates turn off students. Parachuting out-of-town teachers into urban schools is modeled on the distribution of humanitarian aid in a war-torn country and adds to the narrative that communities can’t help themselves. Mandating entrance and certification tests that don’t predict for future performance filters out people (mostly black, brown and low-income) who need more opportunities to prove their abilities. Teacher residencies that give prospective teachers a long-term audition under a proven mentor are more appropriate.
The pipeline isn’t broken; we need new routes that are centered on people of color.
Many prep programs anchored in serving white, middle-class communities are actually very effective in sheltering a workforce dominated by white women. The proportion of teachers who are female (predominately white) grew from 67 percent in 1980-81 to more than 76 percent in 2011-12, according to the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE), a group of education experts from renowned research institutions. The devaluation of teaching as a profession as well as the presence of more lucrative opportunities for men contributes to the overrepresentation of women in the field. But teaching positions collectively represent a sought-after economic and political power base that is contested along lines of race. Many university-based and non-collegiate prep programs are complicit in protecting those economic and political interests accordingly.
CPRE did find in the same study that the percentage of people of color entering the profession actually increased, but minority teachers depart from schools at a much higher rate than white teachers. From the late 1980s to 2008-09, the annual rate of minority teacher turnover increased by 28 percent. Again, a mundane practice such as “no excuses” discipline hurts students, and it demoralizes black teachers who implement it, to the point that it contributes to higher attrition rates. The trope of the black disciplinarian is especially disheartening for black men.
As a former dean and professor of a college of education, I personally saw how a fear of schools with majority black populations led to policies centered on protecting the white women workforce. Professors were reluctant to place student-teachers in supposedly chaotic urban schools because the candidate wouldn’t get a real opportunity to practice. Professors couldn’t connect the state of the school with how they rerouted needed resources away from black districts while defaming them insidiously. This is institutional racism in action.
In addition to the benefits of growing the workforce and improving the professional development of local talent, GYO programs provide a natural buffer against the institutional racism schools and universities accept as standard practices.
There are some risks from going exclusively with GYO. Nepotism can corrupt any GYO program, just like it helped unravel New York City’s community schools movement of the 1960s. Also, the infusion of new knowledge that comes from different people can move schools and districts away from traditions that may be harming students and teachers.
However, communities are tired of waiting for “Superman” to teach, and they don’t have reason to invest in universities that ignore local talent or students of color. If black and brown districts are to have a rich teacher pool that actually values the communities they serve, they have to promote from within.