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Minnesota’s increasingly diverse students need a more diverse teacher corps

If you walked into a kindergarten classroom in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota, a generation ago, you could have joked that the greatest amount of diversity was between Lutherans and Catholics. Today, up to 50 percent of students in Austin elementary schools are nonwhite. You can walk into a kindergarten classroom filled with children representing a half dozen cultures. Where Sudanese, Mexican, Laotian and Karen 6-year-olds learn their numbers and letters alongside students of Norwegian, German and Swedish ancestry.

Anthony Hernandez

Across every corner of our state, rural, suburban and even urban districts are challenged with new and changing levels of student diversity. Yet when these students – the faces of Minnesota’s future – show up to start a new school year, they see teachers and role-models who are overwhelmingly white.

Teacher diversity lags

Minnesota teachers, across all types of districts, are tremendously (95 percent or higher) white, while students of color make up larger and larger shares of our classrooms.

Even in our state’s most diverse district, the children of Minneapolis see a teaching work force whose diversity significantly lags behind that of its students. At Bancroft Elementary for example, 85 percent of students are nonwhite. Yet 87 percent of teachers are white. At South High, 60 percent of students are nonwhite while 88 percent of its teachers are white.

These numbers matter. Decades of studies demonstrate quantifiable positive impacts that teachers of color have on students of color. Improving overall school experiences, increasing academic outcomes, serving as role models, holding high expectations, teaching with cultural competency, and developing caring relationships are all outcomes that can be linked to a more diverse work force.

But it also matters in less quantitative ways. For anyone who has been an educator, there are innumerable ways in which identity and background can build bridges between teacher and student. As a male teacher who has taught first, second and third grade, I know the important connection that a male teacher can make with younger boys. Having also worked with an African-American population and a Somali population, I know the challenges of building relationships among different populations.

The challenge will grow

This challenge is only going to become more pressing as each school year passes. By 2050 the Pew Research Center projects 34 percent of U.S. school children will be immigrants or the children of immigrants. Overall, as of this fall, the majority of children in U.S. schools were expected to be nonwhite.

The time to confront the issue openly and honestly is now, and I am looking forward to addressing these issues as a member of the newly formed Educators 4 Excellence Teacher Policy Team on Teacher Diversity. Nationally and locally there has been no shortage of news events where race and diversity play a prominent role. Our public institutions are a reflection of our priorities. Let us seize this opportunity and give our students a teaching work force that is more diverse.

Anthony Hernandez is a graduate of Austin Public Schools, a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Minnesota, and currently a third-year elementary school teacher in Columbia Heights.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 11/04/2014 - 09:38 am.

    Challenging teachers’ expectations of students

    I agree that it is important to increase the number of non-whites who are teachers as well as in many other professions. Sometimes that can be as simple as saying to a student, “You could be a teacher you know” or “Have you ever thought of becoming a teacher?” That requires current teachers to shift their expectations of non-white students while planting the seed for young students that there is a meaningful future that they may not now envision for themselves.
    After all, where will future non-white teachers (and other professionals) come from if adults never mention the possibility to their young charges?

  2. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 11/04/2014 - 02:22 pm.

    Disagree

    Multi-award winning teacher Rafe Esquith would take issue with this, as do I.

    “We make things unnecessarily complicated for ourselves,” he says in THE HOBART SHAKESPEAREANS. “Two and two still equals four.”

    I am by no means saying we shouldn’t hire a diverse teaching staff— far from it. But I would rather concentrate on my child’s teacher’s teaching ability than on their skin color or the neighborhood they grew up in.

    BTW, “quantifiable positive impacts” means nothing to me. Talk about vague, sweeping statements!

    • Submitted by Crystal Brakke on 11/04/2014 - 05:32 pm.

      I’m curious

      Is this Esquith quote specifically about increasing the diversity of the teaching force?

      There’s a lot of evidence of how teachers with a shared racial or ethnic background of their students positively impact student learning & relationships. I’m not sure the studies this author are referencing, but a good place to start is Villegas, A., & Irvine, J. (2010) Diversifying the Teaching Force: An Examination of Major Arguments. Urban Review, 42, 175–192.

      I was a white teacher in a predominately African American community who learned firsthand the importance of race (mine and my students’) in the classroom, and that experience leads me to believe that we shouldn’t think about this as an either/or: we need both exceptional teachers and diverse teachers.

  3. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/04/2014 - 08:54 pm.

    Let’s try this

    If teachers should reflect the student body, should we try to make sure we have enough blond teachers? How about not only color but religion? Do we have enough handicapped teachers? Enough poor teachers – you know, a lot of kids are poor?

    Seriously, teachers should be good and good teachers will find connection with all students, regardless of color or anything else (unless someone keeps telling kids and their parents that they just have to have teachers of the same color).

    Of course, the other question is how we can achieve that diversity. No one prevents minorities from becoming teachers. Should we force them? Or the author meant reducing requirements?

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