The Death (and Potential Life) of Teachers of Color

06/29/2015 01:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

Ever since I entered the teaching profession over twenty years ago, I have seen the precipitous decline of teachers of color and have lamented and searched for a cause. A few years ago, I heard a piece on the Chicago NPR station WBEZ, about the impetus to increase teacher quality in the state of Illinois. In the piece, it mentioned how an unintended consequence of raising the entrance test scores on the Test of Academic Proficiency (TAP) was to create an even broader racial gap among new teachers. Recently the New York Times addressed the effects of teacher testing and its influence on teachers of color through the lens of bias.

As someone who grew up in Chicago with an exceptionally high number of Black, mostly female, public school teachers (as opposed to many other major cities) who demonstrated amazing work, I have been intensely connected to those who came into the profession during the turbulent Civil Rights Era of the 1960s and '70s. Many those career educators, including many family members and friends, if not all, have reached the age of retirement. From my own observations both empirically and anecdotally, I am acutely aware that their "replacements" have not mirrored the demographics of their older counterparts, not just in Chicago, but also around the country.

At the K-12 level, and increasingly at the collegiate level, teaching has become disconnected from the community in which students live, primarily because teachers and students no longer share a common community. It would be great if we could increase the number of teachers of any color who understood and respected the lived experience of students of color. That is essential and contributes to building trust, caring, and higher expectations. It is likely that teachers of color may be able to share their lived experience in a way that white teachers cannot. I am not disparaging the many white teachers who continue to serve students of color with integrity, cultural relevance, and high expectations. In fact, my own education has been paved with many such shining examples. But we are getting closer and closer to an educational landscape where there are so few teachers of color that students of color are not seeing examples who look like them in their own classrooms and may lose the ambition to teach without being exposed to those models of themselves in the classroom.

One of the negatives often cited about Teach for America is that they have contributed greatly to the "whitening" of the teaching population. However, even exclusive of the TFA numbers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2010 (the latest numbers), the teaching population is only 7 percent Black. Further, what is even more problematic is that out of approximately 235,000 Black teachers in the country, only 58,000 are male. In my own education, I recall only one Black academic teacher, and yes, he taught Afro-American Studies my junior year in high school. In college, I do not recall even one Black teacher, although I do know that there were several on my college campus.

According to the 2011 documentary American Teacher, the numbers are even more depressing. In 1970, 34 percent of the teaching population was male. In 2002, that number was 22 percent. Today, it sits at a chilling 16 percent. For the past few decades, the population of public school teachers who are white has hovered between 82-85 percent. At the same time, we know the population of public school students, particularly in urban areas, consists of predominantly students of color. The question that vexes most schools of education, parents, educators, activists and politicians is; how do we increase the number of teachers of color in public education?

In recent years, Teach for America has done a pretty good job of increasing their minority numbers. However, an organization (or perhaps more program(s) implemented through colleges/universities) with a specific focus on minority students becoming teachers of color is needed. Many students of color convey that they are apprehensive to enter the teaching profession because of the costs incurred at the front end of their training, without a guarantee that they will be hired upon graduation.

We need to connect with our students of color, and model explicit ways for them to become successful, intelligent teachers they could be. This has the potential to build trust, connection, and higher expectations of students who feel that their teacher truly knows them and their lived experience first hand.