By: Larry Strauss*
I am a white teacher and I teach in a high school that, in its 30-year history, has graduated exactly three white students. So I have always been sensitive to the impact of race and ethnicity on the student-teacher relationship and its impact on student success.
Researchers know there are great benefits to students of color when their teacher’s ethnicity matches their own. The findings should be no great revelation. Teaching and learning — at least at the primary and secondary levels — can involve the affect as much as the intellect. There may be no more crucial teaching tool than a meaningful connection with students and a shared culture can help facilitate such connections.
For disadvantaged students of color, seeing an educated professional who looks like them can help make academic aspirations seem possible.
Unfortunately, as The Washington Post recently published, the vast majority of students of color attend schools in which the demographics of the teachers do not match those of the students. In some cases, the disparity is extreme.
Teaching while white
That was the case when I was interviewed in the early 1990s for the job I now hold. The students were all nonwhite, and most of the teachers were white. The principal, an African American woman, did not seem concerned about that when she interviewed me for a position teaching English. The job had been vacant since two consecutive new teachers succumbed to frustration and stress.
School is hard enough for special needs students: My special needs students needed their teachers in the classroom — not on the picket line
The interview lasted pretty much an entire school day. The principal told me repeatedly how seriously she took the task of hiring someone to teach the students, whom she called her babies. I sat in a wooden chair next to her cluttered desk as she talked to me about the prodigious challenges her children faced every day — gang violence, fractured families, severe trauma — and asked me whether I understood the enormity of the responsibility.
Whenever anyone walked into her office — other teachers and staff, students, a parent — she had them ask me whatever they wanted to. By the end of the day, she decided to offer me the job. She then called district personnel to start the hiring process and was told she could not hire another white teacher. A new district policy was trying to fix the ethnic disparity between students and teachers. The principal was incensed. She told district personnel that it was on them to recruit and hire more teachers of color.
When she could not persuade them to overlook my ethnicity, she pleaded with me to take the job as a long-term substitute with less pay and no benefits. She promised to get me a contract as soon as she could.
I appreciated her standing up for me and going out of her way to give me the honor of teaching her “babies” and have never forgotten it. I started the job feeling I had something to prove — that my being a white teacher would not disadvantage those students. After 28 years, I still approach the job with something to prove, not so much because of my ethnicity but just because of the enormous responsibility.
I understand more than ever what can happen to these kids, for the better and for the worse, after they leave high school. And, as a parent myself, I wish every teacher understood the profoundness of their influence, even on kids who appear disengaged.
Teachers, seek to understand
In 28 years, I’ve seen the damage of ineffective teachers. I’ve seen teachers of all backgrounds struggle against the baggage of students wounded by the heartbreaks of life. I’ve seen white teachers fail to transcend cultural differences to understand and reach their students. I’ve seen teachers of color snap under the partly self-imposed pressure to change history. Most of all, I’ve seen teachers struggle to understand teenagers and the youth culture that isn’t quite the same as when we were young.
Traumatizing kids for no real benefit: My school's lockdown drills, active shooter training are security theater. Yours are, too.
I have also seen how important it is for kids to have at least some adults with whom they can easily and closely identify: a teacher, coach, administrator, anyone. We used to have a lunch truck at my school run by a man who was a father figure to many of our Latino students. Sometimes a kid in crisis needed to talk about it in their first language. You’d see them crying and sharing their pain with him, the only Spanish-speaking adult around.
At one time, our school district offered bilingual bonuses to teachers at many schools, but ours wasn't one of them. Our school desperately needed Latino teachers, and not having those bonuses seemed to only encourage the imbalance that left us woefully underrepresented.
Changing the demographics of the next generation of teachers ought to be one of many goals that drive how we attract, recruit, train and retain educators, especially those who will work with disadvantaged children. I am extremely proud that so many of my former students have become the very thing our school has always lacked — educators of color. One was recently named teacher of the year by the charter organization that runs his school.
Teachers need a living wage: My teacher salary was so low I slept in my car. Today, educators still barely get by.
I don’t want to exaggerate my influence over their career choices or their teaching successes, but a lot of these young men and women have let me know how much they enjoyed my class and how obvious it was to them that I enjoyed what I was doing. And it wasn’t just me. There were always at least a few of us who really loved the kids and had fun teaching them.
Those former students, now educators, could be on to something. Perhaps the reason there is a shortage of nonwhite teachers — and, come to think of it, a shortage of anyone of any ethnicity wanting to become a teacher these days — is that too many kids spend too much time in classrooms with teachers who make the job seem like nothing to which any sane person would wish to aspire.
Teachers have reason to be miserable. Insufficient pay for way too much work is one reason — this is a job on which one could quite literally spend 24 hours a day seven days a week and still be cutting corners to really do justice to the needs of all students. Inner-city schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and overwhelmed.
Nevertheless, if we can somehow find the joy in what we are doing, at least most of the time, then we might not only encourage our students to succeed but also inspire the most courageous among them to become the teachers of color they didn’t have.
*Larry Strauss, a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992 USA TODAY