In the Classroom

A shortage everyone can agree on: Indianapolis schools don't have enough black teachers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Teachers, education students and other educators gather at a recruitment event held by the Indianapolis Alliance of Black School Educators in November.

In the two years David McGuire taught at Indianapolis Public School’s Howe High School, he and another teacher were the only black men there out of a staff of 56.

When he went to get his principal’s license at Marian University, he was again, just one of two. In his doctoral program at IUPUI, he was one of three.

It was a trend he couldn’t ignore. It’s also the kind of shortage that’s indisputable: Indianapolis needs minority teachers.

“African-American boys are historically the lowest-performing students,” McGuire said. “African-American men make up the lowest percentage of teachers. No one has ever thought about that connection?”

More than half of Marion County students are black and Hispanic, yet just 12 percent of the county’s teachers are black or Hispanic. A teaching force that isn’t representative of the students in schools is a pervasive problem both in Indiana and nationwide.

Several studies have suggested minority teachers have higher academic expectations for minority students and can serve as important role models for all kids, helping to dispel stereotypes and learn to succeed in a diverse society. And those are just a few benefits that come when students and teacher diversity reflect each other.

But few Indianapolis schools appear to be in a position to take advantage of those positive effects.

According to Indiana Department of Education data from 2015, about 37 percent of Marion County students were black, 19 percent were Hispanic and 39 percent were white. In 2014, about 86 percent of the county’s 8,900 teachers were white, 11 percent were black and a little more than 1 percent were Hispanic.

Across the state, the numbers are no better. In 2014, black, Hispanic, Asian and other minority students made up about 25 percent of state’s public school enrollment, which has stayed fairly constant into 2015. Yet minority teachers numbered just 5.7 percent of Indiana’s public school teaching force.

In other words, almost 94 percent of the state’s public school teachers were white in 2014 even while a quarter of their students were not.

That obvious disparity was troubling to McGuire. If schools could have more black staff members serving in roles such as as campus monitors or football coaches, he wondered, why couldn’t they be math teachers? Or principals?

So in partnership with Blake Nathan, a teacher in Warren Township, the two founded a group called Educate ME to encourage more black men to go into teaching.

“Let’s take the younger generation who don’t know any better, and let’s see if we can show them the value of a teacher,” McGuire said. “I believe, as a black male, I represent what students think of black men for the rest of their lives.”

Making the road to teaching smoother

McGuire and Nathan are focused squarely on attracting new teachers to the classroom by pushing more education and training for potential teachers and by providing incentives to get into teaching.

Educate ME has four tiers of initiatives aimed at high school students, college students, new teachers and veteran teachers who want become leaders. McGuire and Nathan hope that a mixture of scholarships, mentorship programs, college tours and financial support can lead to their goal of a bigger pool of black men teaching in Indianapolis.

Getting high school kids interested is the first step, McGuire, 27, said. But schools sometimes miss opportunities to entice kids into the profession. Lots of schools, for example, have classes, magnet themes or other opportunities to connect with careers, but teaching is rarely one of them, McGuire said.

“There’s journalism, there’s medicine, there’s law, why is there no teaching?” he said. “Every day you sit with a group of students. Why not create that pipeline?”

In its first two years, Educate ME has grown steadily. It had a launch party, and it built a website. In July, it expanded its work when a grant came through for $10,000 from KIND, a snack food company.

The group recently sponsored its first college tour in October, where Nathan and McGuire took 50 black boys on a tour of six Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The second tour leaves in March, and an all-girls version will follow soon after, McGuire said.

In January the foundation will begin recruiting teaching candidates at HBCUs in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Georgia. Interested candidates will then go on a “teacher retreat” in March to learn more about and tour Indianapolis and meet with district, charter school and community leaders.

But infusing the city with new teachers isn’t the only way to fix the problem.

Gwen Kelley, with the Equity Project at Indiana University and part of the Indianapolis Alliance of Black School Educators, cautioned teachers at an event held earlier this month that teachers need reasons to stay in the profession, too.

Many minority teachers tend to work in the highest-poverty districts, where turnover is highest and students struggle most often.

“Even though there’s a shortfall, the gap is starting to close with recruitment,” Kelley said. “However, retention is where the shift in our thinking is coming … The teachers who are leaving are the ones in the hard-to-staff schools, and that’s predominately where African-American and Hispanic teachers are going.”

Research shows teacher ethnicity makes a difference

It’s not as if black and Hispanic teachers automatically come with knowledge about how to better manage diverse classrooms or to be culturally responsive. Minority teachers aren’t magically better at reaching minority students.

But, said Paige Thomas, a Lawrence Township teacher who is biracial, they do bring their own life experiences. A shared background can be a useful way to connect to students who come from similar backgrounds or cultures but sometimes feel out of place in schools with few adults who share those experiences.

“After being in the field for three years, minority is more than just your skin color,” Thomas said. “Minority means that you have … a broad perspective and you have a desire” to use that in your classroom, she said.

The teachers union-affiliated Albert Shanker Institute compiled research for a 2015 report on teacher diversity, and many of the studies cited showed that students, from all backgrounds, benefit when teachers are not just one ethnicity.

Schools with mostly minority students in urban, high-poverty areas see the most teacher turnover, the report said, but minority teachers were shown to be more motivated to want to help minority students improve, so they tend to stick around longer.

A 2004 study from Stanford showed that math and reading scores improved for Tennessee students whose race was the same as their teacher’s, particularly for poor black students. Two other studies published the following year showed black and Hispanic teachers could help black and Hispanic students get higher gains on tests than white teachers.

At Harrison Hill Elementary School, where Thomas teachers second grade, there are five black teachers, and both the assistant principal and social worker are black. Just two men teach in the building, and neither are African-American.

Thomas said relationship-building with students is the most important part of her job. She credits her teachers and the Alliance of Black School Educators with playing a role in her success, and she wants her kids to have the same opportunities. She knows that her life experiences can shape the outcomes of her students, too.

“Building relationship it takes a certain amount of humility — you don’t know everything,” Thomas said. “Every black child and every Hispanic child don’t have the same story. That has been the most important thing I’ve ever learned, and I did not learn that in school.”

Connecting minority teacher recruiting to state efforts

The state has a few strategies in place to recruit minority teachers, but no specific teacher recruitment programs exist, said Samantha Hart, a spokeswoman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

2009 Indiana law called for the Indiana Department of Education to work with other state agencies and community groups to establish programs that focus on minority teacher recruitment and retention. A diversity coordinator was hired, Hart said, but no specific plan has been developed.

“There aren’t currently any state programs to recruit teachers, minority or otherwise,” Hart said in an email. “This is something that the Blue Ribbon Teacher Commission has discussed, and at the next meeting we should have a better idea of what specific ideas they have developed.”

Ritz’s 49-member commission on teacher hiring, formed this summer, has discussed strategies aimed specifically at minority teachers. The group is expected to present its legislative proposals at its last meeting today, although lawmakers have already gotten started work on bills, such as one that aims to attract high school students to study teaching in exchange for free college tuition.

Indiana colleges do make an effort to invite minorities into the teaching profession. Among efforts they have reported in a survey to the education department are scholarship offers to top students, targeted mail to possible minority candidates, and participation in local events such as the Black Expo and career fairs.

Recommendations from a 2015 White House presentation, which was part of a special initiative on educational excellence for African Americans, also suggested states consider recruiting minority substitute teachers or increase support for minority teacher aides to earn teaching licenses.

All school administrators, the White House presentation said, should be trained in racial and gender awareness, specific schools with low numbers of minority and black male teachers should get extra attention and community-based organizations should be invited to help.

But at least as a first step, making meaningful change can start with the simple example for minority students of more teachers who look like them in their schools and the understanding that they could follow the same path, McGuire said.

“I was never a person that believed that there was an achievement gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students,” McGuire said. “It’s an access gap. You provide minority students with the access to education, and watch them rise to the education. If you provide those same students the same access to teaching, watch them rise to the occasion.”

How I Teach

When a parent pushed for a lesson on Mayan history, this Colorado teacher invited her in to help

PHOTO: Megan Witucki
Megan Witucki, a teacher at Compass Montessori School in Wheat Ridge, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Megan Witucki, an elementary teacher at Compass Montessori School, a charter school in Wheat Ridge, believes in the power of community experts.

That’s why when a parent pushed for a lesson on Mayan history, Witucki invited her in to speak about native cultures. Likewise, for a major end-of-year art project, Witucki brought in a local artist who shared her secrets with students.

Witucki talked to Chalkbeat about why she started tapping into community expertise and how the Montessori approach helps her get to know students and foster a culture of work.

Witucki is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I wanted to give back to my community in a meaningful and lasting way. I love working with children and I admire their sense of wonder and their infectious passion to learn. Each day provides me with the chance to empower a child as well as the opportunity to grow and learn myself.

What does your classroom look like?
I am one of two fully-trained certified Montessori teachers who guide the instruction of 33 first through third grade children in our multi-age, lower elementary classroom.

Our classroom is designed to foster choice. It is inviting, cozy, inspiring and engaging. Our classroom is not very big and we have to accommodate 33 little bodies. We also have a plethora of Montessori materials that need to be available to the students at all times. Rather than traditional desks we use individual lap tables, small group tables and work rugs that define the children’s work spaces.

We have space for the students to display their work on the walls and framed prints of art masterworks to inspire creativity. We have classroom plants to add natural beauty to the environment and provide students with hands-on experience during botany lessons.

Throughout our morning work period, one of us offers individual or small group lessons while the other monitors the children’s independent work and re-directs or guides when necessary.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without the support of my school community. Montessori education is a team effort that requires the assistance of and support from the child, their parents, their peers, the co-teaching pair, staff, administration and the larger Compass Montessori community.

Co-teaching is an integral part of a larger network that cares for the children. This network functions like concentric circles that surround and support the child-learner. In the innermost circle is the child, driven by their inherent passions and intrinsic interests. Next, the parents and family, who support the child with their work and education. In the succeeding circle, the learner is given academic, social and emotional support by my co-teacher and me.

The following circle of support is offered by the child’s classmates who vary in age and provide the child with peer guidance as well as opportunities to mentor others and take on multiple leadership roles. This circle is surrounded by an involved administration and the larger staff support circle. Finally, comes the support circle of the greater Compass Montessori community of parents and extended families.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is assemblage art. In Montessori, we naturally integrate art and music into our regular classroom curriculum. The idea for assemblage art came to me when my co-teacher and I were inventorying our leftover art supplies and craft items from previous years’ projects. We had identified odds and ends that we wanted to find a use for when I stumbled upon another teacher’s Pinterest pin.

Our version of this project would be the culminating celebration of all of the year’s original artwork. We began by studying the work of the Russian-American artist Louise Nevelson, who is best known for her groundbreaking work with found art, later known as assemblage art. We discussed how this visionary saw the potential beauty in items discarded by others. The students had rich discussions about what art is and where it can be found. They concluded that sometimes art is where we least expect it.

I then invited our school chef Michelle Lundquist, whom everyone refers to as the “grandma” of our school. Michelle is also a talented local artist who specializes in assemblage art. She shared her inspirations with us and spoke about her artwork.

The children then spent a week collecting old or forgotten knickknacks, pieces from recycling bins, artifacts from the natural world and even items destined for the garbage. In addition, my co-teacher and I organized our miscellaneous craft items; we cut cardboard boxes into 8 x 8 canvases, and set out all of the materials for children to use in their art works.

We invited several parents into the classroom to help with the hot-gluing process and then dedicated a full three-hour morning work period to constructing the assemblages. After the pieces were glued, I spray-painted them monochromatic black, bronze, or gold according to each child’s choice. I was astonished at the strikingly beautiful creations! Though I had hoped to display the composite in the hallway, the children, duly proud of their pieces, insisted on taking them home.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a child does not understand the material I have presented, I will first attempt to evaluate why. Finding out why is key to understanding the solution.

The reason may be non-classroom related, like the child has not eaten breakfast or they are distressed by home issues. I will then attempt to remedy the situation as best I can. I may feed the child or offer the lesson at another time when they can better focus.

At times, lack of understanding is due to the level of the material being inappropriate. If so, I might go back to a previous lesson with the child to scaffold their knowledge base and better equip them for the more advanced concept. If the material is too easy and the child is bored, I might progress the child ahead to offer more challenge.

A child might need to see the concept presented in a way that better suits their individual learning style. Some children need to manipulate the material themselves; some need to draw the concept; some need to write it out; others need to move and fidget while they listen. We have access to the multitude of Montessori materials and accompanying curricula that allow us to teach all concepts kinesthetically when necessary.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Our classroom often looks like organized chaos. At any given time, there may be 33 children working on 33 different projects all in our small space. When I am tempted to stop the class because they look off task, I find it is best practice to wait a minute and observe. I often discover that my first impression of off-task behavior — loud, excited talking, movement — is actually educational in nature and can lead to great work. If allowed, the discussions the students have with one another are often the foundation of invaluable learning pathways and great peer-driven projects.

On the other hand, when the behavior is indeed off task, I will have one of the children ring our chime and then politely ask the class to adjust their behavior to better allow for focused, respectful work. We work hard with the children to create and foster a culture of work by providing varied opportunities for them to take ownership over their learning process.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Allowing children to take ownership of their learning through choice offers students the ability to show me what drives and motivates them. I then take that information to design an evolving individualized curriculum.

I also have the benefit of teaching all my students for three years. As a result I can carefully observe their educational, social, and emotional behaviors and choices. In three years I also regularly interact with the child’s family and often gain more valuable insights. With careful observation and purposeful interaction I am able to foster authentic relationships with my students and their families.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In my first year of teaching, I had my first lesson in the power of inviting parents and the community into my classroom. I was approached by a mother in my classroom who was passionate about Mayan history and wanted her child to have more exposure to the history of native cultures. I asked if she would be willing to volunteer a few times a month to share her knowledge with the whole class. She graciously agreed and provided a richly detailed program that I still use today.

Her contributions also inspired me to establish additional classroom-community partnerships with educators from the Jefferson County Indian Education Program and the Mayan dancers from the Denver Chicano Humanities and Arts Council. The experiences shared by community members enriched our classroom in a way that would never have been possible otherwise. This mom’s passion for Mayan culture taught me to seek input from all the resources available to me so I can teach most effectively.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I found it to be inspiring, thought provoking and a great read for a teacher’s summer list!

What’s the best advice you ever received?

One of my many mentors once told me that a child comes to us with many hidden gifts and treasures, and it is our job as educators to guide and encourage that child to bring those gifts forth and share them with the world. As Maria Montessori once wrote, “Free the child’s potential and you will transform him into the world.”

How I Teach

This Colorado music teacher doesn’t want to stifle the noise — or students’ creativity

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Considering that music teacher Justin Bankey describes his teaching style as “structured goofiness,” it’s not surprising that he doesn’t always jump in when his students are noisy or distracted. Often, he says, those are the moments that spark the greatest creativity.

Bankey, who teaches at Cactus Valley Elementary School in the Garfield School District in western Colorado, talked to Chalkbeat about his sense of humor, his extracurricular jobs and the conversation-starters he uses with students.

Bankey is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom. He’s also twice been named his school’s “Teacher of the Year” by colleagues in his building.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Music teacher Justin Bankey dressed as a magician

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher in a roundabout way. I went into college double-majoring in music and psychology in hopes of going into music therapy. My vocal scholarship allowed for music performance and/or music education, and the deeper I became involved in my education classes, the more I realized that I enjoyed the education aspect. I also started to reflect on all the wonderful teachers I had and how those teachers influenced me.

What does your classroom look like?
A large rectangle, and some other stuff. Oh, you want to know about the other stuff? I surround the students with pictures and words that involve music: posters of composers, pictures of musical symbols, a musical word wall, a wall devoted to the work that students create, whiteboards, pictures of instruments split into families or orchestral positions, tables to set instruments on or micro keyboards for my piano lab, musical rugs, chairs and a projector in the middle. The heart of my operation is my sound system: CD player, amp, equalizer and a computer to run sound and slides. Also, two of my large walls move so my room can open up as the stage we use for performances on either the gym or cafeteria side.

If you can picture the most awesome music room imaginable and then… look next door. I’m joking. I think it is a wonderful room. We are lucky to have it, but if I had the money I can imagine some pretty cool stuff for the students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My sense of humor. I can’t imagine not laughing at some point in the day, either because of students, friends and colleagues… or just because humor enriches everything like music does!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons to teach is my piano lab. I love to integrate technology whenever I can. The piano lab uses the iPad and an application called Piano Maestro, along with a two-octave keyboard. The students get to work at their own pace, and it has so many facets. I like to think of all these uses as stackable lessons. It’s a culmination of what they are learning in class and transferring that knowledge to a hands-on activity. I can also use it in more specific ways like rhythm help, reading the staves, understanding the keyboard, etc.

It also keeps track of the students’ progress so we can use it every year in school. The keyboard knowledge will also lend itself to composing using other technology in the future. I’m excited about the plans for all this awesome technology, but not as excited as the students when they see the lab set up.

How did you come up with the idea?
I learned about it at the Colorado Music Educators Conference. I got in contact with a teacher at a private school that uses it (I think in Texas), and I also got in contact with the application people themselves.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I am relentless with understanding because so much of what I teach is dependent on the last step. The great thing is that these steps circle around so each student has many chances for understanding.

One of the bonuses of my teaching position is that I teach the same lesson to multiple classes (4 sections of each grade level). If I miss some students in one class, I can adjust for the next class. Then for those students that didn’t understand the first time, we break it down in steps until they do understand, and then catch them back up.

I also really enjoy having students help each other out. They are the great equalizer. I also have an open door policy for any students that want or need extra time.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like to use some tools that I’ve learned over the years like an all class attention-getter. I say “Get into the…” and they answer “Zone!” I use some golden oldies like clapping a short rhythmic phrase, and the students repeat the phrase. I keep track of how well the students are doing by marks on my board. If they see me marking in the good they say “Oh yeah!”, but if they see me marking in the bad the say “ahhhh!” in a sad voice and this will get their attention also.

Then again, I am a music teacher and a bit of noise in the background is what I do! I understand that being off task sometimes cultivates the creativity I hope for so I just have to watch it grow instead of stifling it… within reason.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?
One way is being out in the community at different events so that students see you out of school. I referee football for all ages so I get to see families more often. I take a minute here or there to talk with students about weekend plans, how families are doing, and favorite sports (which is always interesting because everyone knows I am a Seahawks fan in Bronco country). I announce at our high school basketball games where I see former students or students whose siblings I teach. I work at the pool during the summer so I get to see them there, too.

What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I take time in the morning to greet them on the way in and/or after school to wish them a great evening. I like to ask them about new haircuts, clothes, new lingo: “Did you know that ‘throwing shade’ was what I used to call a ‘burn’?!”

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I cannot think of just one memorable time because so much of my contact is very positive so it reinforces a lot of what I do. But I also know that through those contacts with families my teaching does not go in a straight line. Students and students’ families help change the direction of my teaching for the better every day because I am soaking in that outside stimuli.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I love sci-fi/fantasy (Clive Barker, George R.R. Martin, etc.) and/or a good detective/thriller book (James Patterson, Lee Child, etc.)

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is stepping into a big world of opportunities! Try and try again. Gosh, so many little tidbits of advice along the way.