First Person

Why creating opportunities for students of color to become teachers is important

The Colorado Department of Education recently published a study to explore the current landscape of teacher diversity in the state. The report, Keeping up with Kids: Increasing Minority Teacher Representation in Colorado, is a call to action.

The highlight of the report is the list of specific strategies to increase the recruitment and retention of teachers of color and why this is an important issue to address.

I sincerely hope that all stakeholders, from legislatures and policy makers to school district leaders and teacher preparation programs are planning to respond to that call.

I know I am.

Why? Teacher diversity matters for all students. As an associate professor at CU Denver, my scholarship centers on issues of diversity and equity in urban schools. Whenever I present my research at professional conferences around the country, I ask conference participants to think about and respond to this question, “what message is conveyed regarding the authority of knowledge and positions of power when students experience school with a predominantly white (and mostly female) teacher workforce?” Our conversations are lively and center on a few important themes including: students’ perceptions of whose voice matters and whose views count, students’ sense of belonging in school, and the need for all children to learn from and interact with teachers who bring a variety of perspectives and lived experiences to their classrooms.

A sad reality exists. Given that 90 percent of Colorado teachers are white, it is entirely possible for a Colorado student to go through her entire K-12 public school education and never have a teacher of color. The same student can continue her education and complete her BA, MA and PhD and still never have a teacher of color.

For these reasons and many more, I created the Pathways2Teaching program in 2010.

Pathways2Teaching is a concurrent enrollment program designed to engage high school students of color in exploring the teaching profession as an avenue for engaging with, giving back to, and righting wrongs within their communities. In collaboration with the University of Colorado Denver and high schools in Denver Public Schools and Adams County School District 14, the Pathways2Teaching program has served over 300 high school juniors and seniors over the last five years.

Our potential future teachers look vastly different from the current teacher demographics in Colorado. Nearly 60 percent of our current and former students are Latino/a, 35 percent African American and 42 percent male.

As the authors of Keeping up with Kids: Increasing Minority Teacher Representation in Colorado point out, there are a number of early outreach programs aimed at recruiting high school students into the teacher workforce. Not all, however, focus specifically on recruiting students of color. If we really want to diversify our teacher workforce and build effective early outreach programs, these programs must be culturally responsive. They must feature a curriculum specifically designed to engage students by explicitly pointing out why they are desperately needed as our future teachers – not just because of the color of their skin, but because of their lived experiences in the same communities that need them the most.

How? It is not always an easy sell. For many students of color, particularly those who live in poverty, schools do not always feel welcoming or safe. This is especially true for African American, Latino and Native American males. One only needs to examine national or state data by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status to see the disproportionate rates of school disciplinary actions, suspensions, special education placements, and lower graduation rates for students of color to better understand the level of disenfranchisement often felt by these students.

The marginalization students experience can become the catalyst for helping them understand how they can disrupt the inequities they have experienced. The Pathways2Teaching curriculum has an explicit focus on having students critically examine the complex educational issues and inequities that exist in poor, urban communities- the very issues that have contributed to the marginalization that they’ve experienced in schools.

Through the Pathways2Teaching program, students also learn about the importance of dedicated, culturally responsive teachers who come to school each day to empower students and make a difference in students’ lives. Students gain a better understanding of the important roles teachers of color play for all students as they read the published work of national scholars (and sometimes have the opportunity to interview these scholars via video conference calls).

Beyond the scholarship of effective teaching for diverse learners that students study, they get to experience it firsthand. The program incorporates a weekly field experience where students work in local elementary one day a week throughout the year. In fact, our research indicates that this experience is a significant factor in motivating high school students of color to seriously consider becoming a teacher. Students better understand that effective teaching is a complex task – one that involves content knowledge, culturally responsive pedagogy, and unwavering dedication – but above all “revolutionary love.”

The call to diversify our teacher workforce is clear and urgent. I know we have a lot of work to do. The Pathways2Teaching program is one small contribution to answering this call.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.