After seven years of teaching in my North Philly school, I realize just how much my students taught me. From them, I learned to improve my instruction and to infuse it with cultural relevance. I learned to check my own biases and always assume the best intentions for parents and families. But I wonder if I was the teacher they needed. My students were mostly Latino, specifically Puerto Rican, and I’m white. Would my students have benefited more from having a teacher who looked like them, someone who shared their cultural background?
I think of Jorge, who asked on our first day of class if I spoke Spanish. When I told him I didn’t, he rolled his eyes — I was another white teacher who wouldn’t understand him. We struggled to connect early on in the year, but I tried to close the gap. I practiced my terrible Spanish and brought in readings and media that highlighted his Puerto Rican culture, like articles and videos centered on Three Kings Day celebrations. Eventually, Jorge would come up and hug me when he saw me. But I can’t help but think of how differently the year might have gone for Jorge if he had a teacher he could relate to from day one.
Currently, only 6% of teachers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are teachers of color, one of the worst teacher disparity rates in the country. Over half the schools in Pennsylvania don’t have a single teacher of color working in them. Even in Philadelphia, the most diverse district in the commonwealth, students of color outnumber teachers of color nearly three to one. In my school, the student body is 75% Latino and 25% Black, but unless you’re a student in the dual-language program, you could have, until very recently, attended elementary school without having a single teacher of color.
The first step in getting a clear picture of exactly why there are so few teachers of color in Pennsylvania is for the state Department of Education to create a dashboard that publicly reports teacher demographics and retention by race at the school, district, and teacher preparation program level. Having a dashboard would build public awareness of the lack of diversity in many schools and programs, as well as help policymakers and administrators better understand the problem and bright spots to replicate.
A second solution is to establish a statewide Grow Your Own initiative, which recruits and develops teachers from within communities to teach in those same communities. These future educators may be current high school students who are given opportunities for dual enrollment courses and financial support to earn their teaching degrees, as has been piloted in the Philadelphia region. Another underutilized pool of diverse future educators is paraprofessionals already working in classrooms. Pennsylvania should promote and fund a Paraprofessionals Pathways Program to provide a clear pathway for paraprofessionals into teaching, which has been piloted in Pittsburgh.
I’ve recently made the hard decision to leave the classroom and now serve as project manager for the district’s equity department. In this new role, I have the opportunity to impact students from across the city. Ensuring that policies, decisions, and actions are vetted through a process that deeply examines their impact on educational equity for historically marginalized groups is a focal point of my department’s work. Ultimately, our goal is to rectify the inequities, like ensuring that students have access to teachers who share their background.
We have a long way to go before our workforce reflects all our students. It’s time to take action on this pressing problem so that the commonwealth’s diverse racial backgrounds and cultures are fully represented by our teachers.
Michelle Gainer is a Teach Plus Pennsylvania policy fellow. She recently joined the School District of Philadelphia’s equity team after previously serving as a teacher leader in the district. firstname.lastname@example.org