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

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”