Monday, May 18, 2015

Teacher Diversity Matters

I cannot believe the conversation about classroom diversity is still popping up.

It's all the more puzzling because I haven't heard anybody say that teachers from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds would be bad (and I live in an area where hearing someone say that wouldn't necessarily surprise me).

But the picture is pretty simple. Our nation's student body is now not mostly anything, but our teacher pool is overwhelming white and female. We need more teachers who are not white and/or female. Some teachers who are white and/or female seem to hear this as "You are not fit to do your job." I don't think that's the point. Diversity in the classroom matters-- and not just in the obvious areas where mostly-black student populations are taught by mostly-white faculties.

Several years ago in my district, we had an elementary school with 100% female staff. Teachers, administration, lunchroom, custodians-- every single adult in that building was a woman. That meant that students who lived with a single mom could go weeks at a time without ever seeing an adult male. That was simply a bad idea any way you cut it. Boys need to see bigger, more adult versions of themselves, and girls need to see functional adult men (the same holds true if we reverse the genders, but it's beyond-improbable that students could find themselves in a school with no adult women).

Children connect to similarities. Small children will get excited about simple shared superficialities (Look! We both have blond hair!) while older students will choose clothing and hairstyle so that they can look like other students and thereby cement a bond. When they find similarities with adults, it helps them imagine what their adult selves could be.

It seems like basic common sense to me that-- at a minimum-- students ought to be able to look around a school and see adults who look like them. It seems like good educational sense that they should also find adults in their school who build their sense of who they can be and what they can become, as well as adults who can understand the place they're coming from.

All of us stand in a classroom, equipped to make certain connections. I have been in the school (student and teacher) for forty-some years, and my own background has a lot to do with music and performance. I have no organized team sport background, which makes me a little bit of an outlier in this neck of the woods. I'm not a young guy, and I am ancestors-on-the-Mayflower white. I'm on wedding #2 after a decade-long interregnum, and I've raised two children. So, basically, I'm a fluent native speaker of some languages/codes, and not so much of others. That's fine. We don't need an entire staff of people who all come from the same place, are rooted in the same culture, or speak the same version of the language.

This just seems self-evident to me. The more different voices we have in a school, the better off the school is. First, because that improves the odds that each student will find a voice that speaks to him or her. Second, because everyone else gets to hear and experience voices different from their own.

A hard part, apparently, is keeping those voices unranked, to avoid the suggestion that some voices are somehow better, more valuable, more correct than others. But the hardest part is actually getting the varied voices in the room.

I teach in a rural/small town setting. In all the years I've taught here, I've had three African-American colleagues in the entire district (which is three more than some other local districts can claim). We have a very small percentage of students of color, and most of the people who apply to work here come from here, so there's a bit of a cycle that is hard to break. And like most schools in PA, we barely have the money to function, let alone do things like headhunt to fill positions (for which we already get a good quantity of applicants, so administrators feel little pressure to reach out). We do not have a very diverse student population or teaching staff, and that's a problem for a district that has little daily experience of the big, wide world outside our area (I have had parents who don't like to come to school events because they didn't like "city driving" in our town of 7,000 people).

Connecting to that outside world is a challenge for rural kids. When they turn television, they do not see people who live like they do, and when rural life is shown, it is either some cartoon bumpkinny Dukes of Hazzard hick version, or it's just laughably wrong (like all the television "small towns" that have a local tv station.

This has to be even worse for my rural/small town students of color, who don't see people like themselves pretty much anywhere.

We need more teachers of color, not as special "guests" (or as the building "specialist" in talking to "those students") but as full partners in the work, and we don't need them only in large, urban, mostly-black school systems. How we get there I have no idea. Black men are entering the profession at a high rate, but they are leaving it at a high rate, too. That's a problem; I don't see how anybody can assert that it isn't. It's not a problem that will be solved by TFA, who are aggressively courting black men in order to provide them with the worst possible experience of teaching. This is not a great recruitment technique.

The teaching profession, now more than ever, needs to be broad and deep, but instead is becoming narrower and shallower. If our goal is to impart the full range and richness of human understanding and experience to students from a full range of culture and background, it makes sense to enlist a full sampling of human beings to do that work. Instead, the profession is drying up and people are avoiding it in ever-increasing numbers. This is not a good thing for the country, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.

No comments:

Post a Comment