“Who are those that have fallen into the gaps of statistics, graphs, and pie charts?” asked Alexei Casselle, a Minneapolis spoken-word artist and aspiring educator. “Who are those standing in the shadows of American prosperity? Who are those who are being under-served, under-valued, under-estimated; just about everything but understood,” he continued. I know who he meant. There was a time in life when I worried I was one of them.
Before I moved to the United States, my teachers in Mexico understood the tough transition I would likely experience. They explained to me that “there will be people there who will not think you’re smart enough because you are Mexican.” Unfortunately, they were right. In fact, some of the people who didn’t believe I was smart sometimes stood at the front of my classrooms. Not Mr. Martinez. though. He, like me, came from Mexican descent but grew up in the United States. Without hesitation, he recognized the value in connecting with me, and even recognized when I was being bullied. He helped raise the issue to my parents and encouraged me to understand that those who criticized me did so out of ignorance.
Mr. Martinez taught me that teachers with a worldview were more willing to accept me and believe in me. Encouraging others to feel valuable is one of the most important aspects of cultural responsibility. It is also one of the most important aspects of great teaching, and there is a growing body of research that points to diversity among school staff and teachers as a valuable asset for student learning and growth.
Finding ways to diversify
That is why I joined other educators and education advocates last weekend at the Educators 4 Excellence-Minnesota summit, “Voices for Equity and Teacher Diversity.” And it is why I stand alongside a diverse group of more than a dozen of my peers, advocating for greater diversity in Minnesota’s teacher work force. Together, we have spent months researching ways to diversify Minnesota’s teacher work force and are currently proposing actionable recommendations – from recruitment through school climate – to encourage more people of color to both join our field and remain in the profession as leaders in our classrooms.
Recruitment efforts, in particular, offer a prime area of opportunity to help close the teacher diversity gap where it starts. As teachers, we are calling on our traditional teacher preparation programs and districts to identify and pursue candidates of color as early as high school and to support them through college graduation. We are urging our preparation programs to publicly report information on teacher candidate enrollment and completion disaggregated by race to help raise awareness and inform candidates’ decision-making. And we want our state to make diversity a priority by providing targeted funding to high-quality alternative certification programs that attract higher percentages of teachers of color.
Fostering diversity in education is an issue I researched in graduate school just two years ago. Today, the issue has become increasingly relevant. As of 2014, children of color represent the majority of the nation’s K-12 student population. Across Minnesota, students of color make up 29 percent of the student population, while teachers of color make up only 4 percent of our educator workforce. This gap is likely to grow unless we start to address it in our education system.
Time to stand up
In my classroom, we talk about mistakes. We encourage cultural tolerance. Students stand up for each other. On behalf of Minnesota’s education system, we all have to stand up for what is best for our schools and students.
There are many root causes that led to a shocking disparity between the diversity among our teachers and among our students. Letting the gap fester, or worse, letting the gap grow, would be a mistake. Minnesota cannot wait to build an education system that recognizes and celebrates cultural differences. Minnesota can be a leader in diversity.
Grecia Zermeno-Castro is a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Minnesota, a member of the E4E-Minnesota teacher policy team on Teacher Diversity, and a second-grade teacher at Bancroft Elementary IB World School in Minneapolis.
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