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Making the case for hiring teachers of color

Magaly Miralles of Red Pine Elementary in Eagan got me curious.

After all, she came to the United States from her native Venezuela at 8 years old, overwhelmed by a language she didn’t speak and a culture she didn’t know. At her Miami grade school she couldn’t help but cry with the strangeness of it all.

Now, many years later and educated as a teacher, she brings Spanish language skills and her heritage to English language learners in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan (RAVE) district, helping other children transition to school and the American way of life.

“Usually, they get attached to me very much,” she confided in a short phone interview before turning to work with the students spilling into her classroom. I heard their excited voices in the background.

Magaly Miralles
Magaly Miralles

Miralles has received two human-rights education awards, one in 2008 from the Minnesota Education Association and recently the George I. Sanchez Award from the National Education Association for her work with children and their families from a rainbow of backgrounds.

And a rainbow there is in the suburban RAVE district, where 78 percent of children are white and the rest are Hispanic, black, Asian and Native American.

That got me wondering: How many teachers of color and diverse backgrounds are there in Minnesota schools? And how does that compare to the rising tide of school children of color?

So I started digging for numbers, easily finding stats reflecting the complexion of our classrooms: Almost one-quarter of the 823,200-some youngsters in Minnesota schools are non-white, according to the state Department of Education.

I had to shovel deeper for the numbers of teachers of color, turning up empty after requests to Education Minnesota, which is the teachers’ union, and the state Department of Education went unanswered.

Some key questions
But Jennifer Godinez, associate director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP), had stats. The percentage of teachers of color has never risen above 3.3 percent, figuring at about 1,560 teachers, she said, pointing to the organization’s 2009 State of Students of Color and American Indian Students report.

That begs a heap of questions. Does it make a difference to kids when their teachers don’t look like them; do they learn less? Or are kids color-blind? And why should we care? Plus, what do educators say about it all?

“Attracting both more diverse and effective teachers to the teaching profession in Minnesota is a key to the academic success of all youth,” according to MMEP, a non-profit collaborative, which issued that statement [PDF] in January in connection with the state’s request for federal Race to the Top funds.  

As you’d expect, there’s lots of agreement with that point of view, and other reasons as well for a diverse pool of teachers.

Sheila Wright
Sheila Wright

“We want to increase the number of teachers of color because it adds richness to teaching and learning,” says Sheila Wright, dean of the School of Education at Hamline University in St. Paul. More from her later.

“Obviously our demographics are changing. It’s important for students to see teachers who look like them, who can empathize with their life stories,” says Karen Hynick, dean of education at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where about half of those enrolled in education courses are students of color and many come from poor families.

There’s a broader perspective as well.

“The workforce should reflect the community we’re serving,” says RAVE school board member Art Coulson, a Native American (whom I once called boss when we were both working for the St. Paul Pioneer Press).

Art Coulson
Art Coulson

And remember, he added, “It’s equally important for the white kids to see the people who don’t necessarily look like them, people who look like the broader world they’ll go out to in the community,” Coulson said.

“Every district is looking for great teachers and many, many districts are looking for teachers of color,” said Cindy Gustafson, part of Roseville Area Schools’ effort to recruit well-qualified teachers with diverse life experiences for her rapidly-changing St. Paul suburban district.

In Roseville schools, the percentage of students of color has jumped from about 25 percent in 2005 to 37 percent currently. (The number of students eligible for free or reduced-fee lunch tops one-third.) And with 41 teachers of color equaling about 9 percent of its teaching staff, they’re way above average in minority recruitment. Roseville also seeks multi-lingual teachers, Gustafson said, tallying five of those hires just last year.

In the RAVE district, there’s Scott Thomas, integration and educational equity coordinator, who says the 3 percent-plus number for teachers of color statewide “sounds a little high. For us, it’s less than 2 percent,” Thomas said.

Looking for ‘cultural competence’
Intensifying recruiting staff of color over the past couple of years is a big part of Thomas’ job, he said, but it’s more than that. He looks for “culturally competent” white teacher applicants as well. It’s part of an effort that has transformed the way the district hires, he said.

The district has a more centralized and consistent approach to looking for quality staff now, Thomas said. “We look for cultural competence, knowing the bulk of people in the profession are white. It has impacted how we recruit and retain the best staff for our students.

“We ask, ‘Do you have the will to educate all students to reach their full potential and the skills to do it?’ We get them talking about the experience of teaching students who don’t look like you.”

Wright, from Hamline University, would second the cultural competence approach. “Nationally, all teacher education programs are very concerned about the effectiveness of teaching,” Wright said. “Certainly it’s important for students to see role models who look like them. However we also know it’s the quality of teaching and how they [teachers] orient themselves toward learners, how they deal with the differences that matters. As a dean of color myself, I have effectively taught students different from my own background.”

Teachers have to be “open to the possibility of working differently” with students. They can’t have “perceptual blind spots,” Wright said, or impose one system on all students, even if those students look like them. Teacher classes at Hamline address such issues for undergraduates and teachers alike.
Besides cultural differences between students and teachers, there are also gender differences, she stressed.

Still, there are problems, one of them succinct in these words: last hired, first fired.

Given teacher-union tenure rules and tightened school-district purse strings, that’s a situation that teachers of color and districts across the state often find themselves in all too often these days.

The Rosemount-area district, for instance, has 39 tenured staff of color, of which Miralles is one, and nine probationary teachers from diverse backgrounds. It’s those probies who “most likely” will be laid off because of the district’s budget shortfall, according to Thomas.

“I’m distressed we’re losing any teachers at all, but very distressed we’re losing quality teachers of color,” board member Coulson said. But “it’s the same as in any business. It’s a consequence of how late everybody was in coming to the diversity game and trying to make the workforce reflect the change in the classroom.”

But the district will be ready for change, he maintains. “We’ll come out of this recession stronger and in a better position to build our ranks,” having “kept track of the really good people” and ready to hire. “We have to take the long view.”

Different approaches
Meanwhile, many within districts, colleges and universities are addressing the need for diversity in different ways.

In the Roseville district, for instance, diversity issues are addressed at yearly back-to-school all-staff workshops and there are “equity in integration” specialists based in each school to address day-to-day issues, Gustafson said.

In the RAVE district about 1,000 teachers have gone through two-day diversity trainings and the district this summer pilots a program with St. Mary’s University where teachers can earn cultural competency teaching certification.

At Minneapolis Community and Technical College, a two-year school, staff is reaching out to students they call “under-represented:” first generation college students, minorities and poor students, offering special programs. They’re getting education students into classrooms early so they can be sure of their desire to teach and then helping graduating students apply to the four-year colleges to finish their degree.   
In the end, it’s about results.

“The important thing,” says Wright of Hamline, “is we want to produce high quality, high performing teachers able to achieve success regardless of the student’s background.”  
And then there’s the parent perspective, according to Coulson. “I want great teachers. My kids go to these schools. The best teachers are not all of one particular kind.”

As for Miralles, she’s seen the diversity effect firsthand. About her students, she says, “I feel that closeness. They will come up and participate more. It’s getting the building blocks for them that can succeed later.”

This article is made possible in part by the Don W. Taylor Fund of The Minneapolis Foundation.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/17/2010 - 09:43 am.

    “It’s important for students to see teachers who look like them..”

    “It’s equally important for the white kids to see the people who don’t necessarily look like them…”

    “We get them talking about the experience of teaching students who don’t look like you…”

    And there, my friends, you have it; the leftist description of ‘diversity’.

    Who you are is less important than what you are.

    You know, one of my favorite movies is “To Sir, with love”. For those of you that haven’t seen this classic, it’s the story of a an engineer that takes a teaching position at a school serving lower class English kids while looking for work in his profession.

    His classroom is a zoo filled with crude, predatory animals and he quickly realizes that before the kids can learn anything academic, they need to learn how to behave civilly towards themselves and others. Being pubescent kids, of course they resist at first, but through the force of his own high moral character, demeanor and force of will, the teacher, and the kids, succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

    Not only do they all finish high school, a triumph in and of itself, they see life as something more than the rubble strewn neighborhood they come from.

    The engineer in the meantime, has found a nice job in his field, but the last scene is of him standing in his classroom while another load of animals trots in.

    Best movie Sidney Poitier ever made…oh yeah, that’s right. It’s probably important to some of this reading audience to know that he’s a black guy and every one of his students was white. I forgot for a minute because that aspect really didn’t have much of anything to do with the story.

    I know it may come as a shock to some scary smart members of the reality based community, but the truth is that who you are is more important than what you are…I know that’s a lot for some to accept, but it’s true.

    See, the color of your skin is something you have absolutely no control over; you don’t have any control over the color of mine either…and obsessing over it is not only a waste of time, it’s a borderline mental deficiency.

    Teachers in our public system are judged by how long they have been behind a desk, how many classes they’ve taken, what color they are, where they’re from…everything but how well they teach…and our schools are tanking; go figure.

    Maybe it’s time we assess the mental health of would-be administrators, school board members and teachers as well as their teaching credentials.

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 03/17/2010 - 05:29 pm.

    Dear Cindy Boyd and/or Beth Hawkins, It could be argued that the United States emphasizes college learning too much. I think it is one of the great myths or shibboleths that seperates from the likely to succeed from the likely to fail. If you look at the latest Economist magazine the US has almost twice the percentage of college graduates as do Germany and Japan two of the world’s powerhorses (int.). OK I exaggerated a bit but its mostly true. Interview somone like Arne Carlson about vocational training or a national or international business educator. I think some of our basic premises may be misguided, unworkable and unaffordable to the great many now and in the future. And I can probably bet twenty years from now I’ll be reading and hearing the same thing.

  3. Submitted by Joe Eberwine on 03/23/2010 - 09:38 pm.

    I am very disappointed in the direction of this article and I agree with Thomas. Teachers should be hired on merit and teaching skills. Not on the color of their skin. Am I the only one who sees the blantant reverse discrimination? How can you hire someone based on skin color and still claim to be “equal opportunity”? I do not have an equal opportunity if you are only hiring people of color. When will we stop this madness????

  4. Submitted by Payton Powell on 03/28/2010 - 01:42 pm.

    To Mr. Swift and Mr. Eberwine, both of you have very valid points and make effective criticisms of certain aspects of the educational system. Yes, part of the problem is indeed the lack of merit based judgement do to the failing of the tenure system and the teachers unions as a whole, these unions either need to accept merit based judgement or be abolished. However, it seems that you did not read the second half of the article where it pointed out that recruiting minority teachers is only half of the battle, the other being culturally aware teachers.

    Race is a societal construct, at a genetic level people are more the same than different, in fact less than one percent of are genetic make-up accounts for differences. In that sense Mr. Swift is right in saying that race should have little to do with anything in this country or world, however that is naieve to say. The truth is there is still an education gap between minorities (specifically African-Americans and Latinos, and specifically males) and Whites. Indeed despite efforts in public schools throughout the laste few decades, minorities have only made slight gains in public schools even those who come from relatively stable high-income families (Ladson-Billings p.4). The problem is not just who is teaching students but how they are being taught, textbooks and lesson plans are outdated and archaic. I think it’s poignant that Mr. Swift point out “To Sir With Love” as he has clearly little idea what a modern classroom looks like. Research has proven that “civilty” alone does not improve the over all outcome or self-esteem of students, in fact it can make it worse (Kozol p.158). Many schools have tried rigid almost military style discipline, but this combined with dismal classroom and neighborhood environment does little except prepare students for dead end jobs or prison. That may seem extreme but districts throughout the country have adopted policies and practices developed by those in the field of the so-called correctional establishment.

    Gentlemen, material is out there volumes of research and development of tried and true practices that can work if only emphasis was placed on fostering environments of learning not discipline. This cultural competancy they are talking about has a term of its own: culturally relevant pedagogy, using methods that teach students through means that both affirm their validity to society and things they can relate to. For as long as public schools have existed in this country their has been a sharp emphasis on Euro-centric culturally biased education, while progress has been made (this can be debated as Texas who effectively determines whats in textbooks in this country has recently made a giant leap backwards) testing and the teaching methods have only continued to bind students and teachers to predetermined cultural roles.

  5. Submitted by Payton Powell on 03/28/2010 - 01:43 pm.


    Shifting to culturally relevant education will help greatly in improving, not just graduation rates and test scores, but the development of our nation and it’s citizenry as a whole. Recruiting teachers of color does not mean sacrificing high standards for their employment or for the students they are teaching. Instead look at it this way, why not start preparing and inspiring the idea of teaching as a necessary responsible rewarding career in young students of color so that they strive to meet these standards. Even from a conservative viewpoint careers should have an accurate representation of the make-up of our Nation, and this means more people of color in more positions across all fields. This falls back to culturally relevant pedagogy, teachers white or otherwise should be able to instill a desire to achieve and succeed in their students no matter their color. This must be done if we are going to continue to succeed as a Nation and it must be achieved by anymeans necessary (and no that does not mean lowering standards but changing them reflect the 21st century we live in).

    As a young Latino male who was taught in the Minneapolis Public School system and as an aspiring future educator (High School History) I can safely say I have fairly resonable perspective of this subject. I have experienced first hand what does and does not work, and while coming from a more advantageous socio-economic background than others in my demographic I definantly saw the difference between teaching methods that succeed and ones that fail. I know that when I begin my career in the classroom that my race will affect the way I teach and the way I am percieved both negatively and positively. While we as humans are virtually incapable of being objective, we can do our best to understand, recognize, and work around our own cultural lens and this is what I will strive to do. It’s important to note that no matter who I teach my standards for my students will be very high, and that I will do all I can to ensure my students at least have the opportunity to meet those standards. Teaching in a culturally relevant way for me means I will affirm the validity of those in the minority and expose new ideas to those in the majority, it’s the only way I know how to teach and the only way I have seen it work successfully.

  6. Submitted by Moussa Camara on 03/31/2010 - 05:25 pm.

    In response to some of the comments that say “teachers should be hired on merit and skills not on the color of their skin” I found it true if the hiring policy is correctly respected.

    My name is Moussa Camara.I am from Guinea, west Africa. I have a BA in education with a teaching experience of more than ten years I taught English as Second Language in different high schools in Guinea and at the Univeristy Gamal Abdel Nasser of Conakry,Republic of Guinea, West Africa.
    I moved to the United States of America in 1996 to pursue my post-graduate education dream in my profession. I graduated with a Master’s Degree of Arts in Educational Leadership from the University of St. Thomas in 20000.
    Since I graduated, I have been struggling to go back to my teaching profession and did not succeed yet.My application status in some different school districts would witness it. I have applied for jobs in most of the school districts around Minnesota, but yet not job or even called for interview.

    The surprising thing for me was the time, I talked with someone who teaches in one of school districts about my concern, she told me “You may have all the skills, educations, merits or certificates in Minnesota, but if you do not have someone in the system, you will never be hired at the level of you credential” They will always ask you to get experience in Minnesota system without taking into consideration your previous background.

    So,if it comes to encourage and give incentives the teachers of color to be part of the solution of our problems we have in our educational system, I really appreciate the idea and I am more than willing to support it.
    I am one of those teachers of color who would want to contribute in the educational system in this state that I love so much, but there is no chance offered to me yet.

    Thank you.

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