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Teaching is the single most powerful profession in this society.

The people who are dedicated to this profession can help to transform urban schools by working to ensure that students develop academic competence, develop self confidence and self direction, and by creating a supportive social context in which children can grow and develop.

We know that teachers create the experiences that children have in school and that embedded within these experiences children are learning academic skills and social values. They are learning how to live together. They are learning all of the moral and ethical values that would be necessary to participate in schools in ways that are supportive of each other and of their academic learning.

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Teacher candidates need to demonstrate a strong interest in learning about the communities in which they work and where their students live. This is important for making connections between students’ life experiences and classroom learning.

Teacher demographics
The composition of the U.S. teaching force by race and ethnicity. From 1986 to 2011. Credit: Graphic: Etta Hollins

To understand where we are and where we need to go, we need to look at the demographics of who it is that’s is in the profession, who it is that’s being taught, and where they live.

If we look at the teaching force by race and ethnicity, we see that in 1986, 91 percent of all of the teachers in the teaching force were white. If we look again in 2011, we see that still 84 percent of all those in the teaching force were white.

In terms of preparation for teachers, right now, 68 percent of those being prepared are white. Fifty-two percent of the students who they will teach are white.

The teachers’ work is much harder when the child comes from a different experiential background than their own. Notice that I am not saying we cannot teach students different from ourselves. I am saying that we have to pay attention to these differences.

In the 2010-2011 academic year, for the first time in the U.S. we reached an 80 percent graduation rate. What that means is that 80 percent of all of the young people who entered ninth grade graduated high school. That was a major accomplishment.

In terms of preparation for teachers, right now, 68 percent of those being prepared are white. Fifty-two percent of the students who they will teach are white.

But when we look more closely, we see that there’s an inequity in who is graduating at what rate. In 2011-2012, 68 percent of African American students graduated high school and 76 percent of Hispanic students graduated high school.

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But those data do not tell another story. Across the U.S., in 2011 and 2012, more than 1,500 high schools were labeled dropout factories. That means that fewer than 60 percent of the students in these schools actually graduated high school. These schools were located in the urban core.

What do people need to know to be able to improve this situation?

To do this, teacher candidates need a deep understanding of the communities in which they work. They need to know the different situations in which children live.

Children and youth in the inner city often live in poverty and may be separated from one or both parents. They may be found living with members of the extended family, in foster care, homeless, or incarcerated.

Children living in foster care experience the trauma of separation of family members and a familiar environment.

Many foster children frequently move from one foster home to another, experience some form of abuse and/or neglect, change schools frequently, and feel isolated and alone.

Children living in stressful situations such as these need a great deal of additional support from teachers and administrators for their academic, social, and emotional growth.

Traditional school and classroom practices do not serve these children well.

In my work I have identified five essential tools for learning that include culture, cognition, language, literacy, and experience. Each of these tools can serve as the context or location for learning, the text or subject matter for learning, and as a tool or instrument for learning.

At the highest level, there is a language and literacy tradition within the culture and connecting children to that tradition can take us to the highest level of literacy.

Teaching is the single most powerful profession in this society.

A large part of the future of this nation depends on our success.

Failure is not an option.

(From remarks made at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, annual convention keynote speech. Edited for length and clarity.)

Dr. Etta Hollins is professor and the Kauffman Endowed Chair for Urban Teacher Education at the School of Education at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns about teaching.

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