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Increasing teacher diversity must start with truly listening to teachers of color

photo of article author
Cristin Craig
Last month, Minneapolis Public Schools released a report on the district’s challenges to increase teacher diversity, based largely on interviews and focus groups with teachers of color. The report offers teachers’ honest and, at times, painful perspectives on why the district is struggling to find and retain educators who reflect the diversity of its students.

While many folks may be surprised by the barriers that teachers of color face, from licensing hurdles to feelings of isolation, educators of color are breathing a sigh of relief.

Finally, we hope, people are ready to listen to us.

I’ve taught in Minnesota for over a decade, and tried telling anyone who would listen that being a teacher of color is hard work. Yes, teaching is hard work, period. Add to that being one of the only people in the building who looks like the students you’re serving, dealing with daily micro-aggressions from colleagues, and watching the school-to-prison pipeline play out in front of your eyes, and you have a downright draining, sometimes dehumanizing job as a teacher of color in Minnesota. It’s no surprise that although students of color make up about a third of Minnesota’s student population, just 4 percent of their teachers are people of color.

Yet I could not ask for a better job. I get to spend my days supporting students and advocating for them to get the education that they deserve. I get to see students who look like me achieve great things, despite operating in a system that was created to work against them.

‘Stop bringing up race!’

Too often, on the harder days, when I’ve had the energy to talk about what I was seeing and experiencing as an educator of color, I’ve been gaslighted and pushed out. “Stop bringing up race!” colleagues have told me.

Now, as educators of color bravely share their stories and research on the benefits of teacher diversity piles up, people — especially white people with power — finally seem to be paying attention.

Their first question usually is: So, what do you want us to do about it? How can we increase teacher diversity?

We know that there are very few teachers of color in Minnesota teacher preparation programs, partly because students of color don’t feel that they belong in education. Educators of color from lower-income families do not see teaching as lucrative and decide to support themselves and their families in other fields. Gov.-elect Tim Walz’s plan to increase teacher salary and provide loan forgiveness for educators of color is a start. But let me be clear: The problems run much deeper, which means the solutions need to, as well.

In order to attract and retain educators of color in Minnesota, we need to create workspaces where we feel wanted. We need colleagues who are willing to do the internal work of facing their implicit biases on their own. Teachers of color need to be able to focus on teaching our students, not constantly educating our white colleagues.

What we need in administrators

We need administrators to see us as teachers who are capable of not teaching just the struggling kids of color, but also the best in brightest in the school. We need administrators who believe us when we say that many of the kids of color they’ve labeled as struggling — or disruptive or problematic — are in fact just as bright and capable as their peers. We need schools that are actively using restorative practices to keep our black and brown kids in the classroom and out of prison.

Even for white people who seem to be listening, I can already hear their skepticism: These recommendations are unrealistic. Administrators don’t have that much control over their teachers and buildings. We can’t change an entire system overnight.

I’ve heard these excuses before. But, research and teachers of color are telling us, loud and clear, that we can’t make the same excuses, and do the same things, and expect different results.

If we’re serious about having a teaching force that truly reflects Minnesota students, we need radical change. And that means we need to listen, even when it’s painful, to what teachers of color have to say.

Cristin Craig, Ed. S., has been a Twin Cities educator for over a decade. She has been support staff, a special education teacher, and a dean of students in urban and suburban districts and charter schools. Currently Craig is a dean of students at Irondale High School in the Mounds View District.


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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by John N. Finn on 12/17/2018 - 10:03 am.

    “….students who look like me ….. in a system that was created to work against them.”

    Being insufficiently woke, I’d be interested in a followup piece detailing how the public school system was created to do that.

  2. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/17/2018 - 11:08 am.

    Shouldn’t teachers be hired based upon ability and knowledge (qualifications)? Why must it always be about diversity or skin color ? I would also disagree on claims the school system was designed to work against students of color.

    • Submitted by Tk Baldwin on 12/17/2018 - 07:56 pm.

      Bob the new racism is the ignorance that it does not exist unfortunately sending your kids to a predominantly white school being a minority is one of the most dangerous things in the world pull up the disciplinary for the state of Minnesota and look at the ratio of minorities that our discipline vs. White students and white students are the massive shooters.. unethical white teachers are given the power and authority to racial discipline minority students and get away with it they load students record with a rap sheet given them a prison record to where the next grade the next teacher continues to do the same thing it’s an unhealthy dysfunctional environment for any child that’s why the community needs Educators that look like them or other minorities no child needs to go to a predominantly white school white teachers are right in the rules for writing the books and everything to protect their white assets.. also with the toxic president he has bought out every white supremacist possible you know these white supremacist are in the schools on the police force we don’t know who’s in the classroom with her kids that’s why they need Educators that look like them get it stay blessed

      • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 12/18/2018 - 08:22 am.

        Your comment doesn’t add up one bit. I’m not ignorant of the racism that exists in our society, but that hardly accounts for the massive failures of certain minority groups in the classroom.

        School systems in Minnesota aren’t so biased that their only purpose is to make minority students fail. You are basically ignoring the reality of what teachers face in the classroom and pretending that its all their fault. Theres no perfection, but that doesn’t mean the failures are on the school system. We have a pretty fair system in this state.

        • Submitted by Diedra Carlson on 12/24/2018 - 11:27 pm.

          Raj, MN public schools system is a microcosm of the larger American public school system. The genesis of that system was to exclude. Some of MN largest school districts suffer from segregation to this day. Nearly 60 years, schools have been patched worked and jimmy rigged to give an appearance of fairness since Brown v. Board of Education. To believe anything else, you have been hoodwinked and bamboozled.

          The system will not change until those in power find value in changing it.

  3. Submitted by Andrew Mueller on 12/17/2018 - 06:20 pm.

    To answer the two comments above, here is one example of how our education system was designed to marginalize students of color (in this example American Indian students):

    However, the issue that the author raises about the education system is less about whether or not our education system was explicitly designed to work against students of color but rather that the system as it currently exists produces disproportionate outcomes for students of color (i.e. school-to-prison pipeline, achievement gaps, etc.).

    There is a saying that “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” I think that is where we are in education, especially as it relates to the experience of both students and teachers of color. The beginning of the re-design process in this case is listening to and validating the experiences of people of color. Then, people and institutions need to take action both at the policy level and ground level to implement system changes.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 12/18/2018 - 08:26 am.

      No, our school systems don’t marginalize students of color. The highest percentile scores in many school districts also belong to minority communities.

      There are social issues regarding daily preparedness and motivation towards improving outcomes. You can change the system till the cows come home and nothing will change the outcome until issues stated are addressed.

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/17/2018 - 06:40 pm.

    “Tim Walz’s plan to increase teacher salary and provide loan forgiveness for educators of color is a start.”

    That plan is blatantly racist. Perhaps instead, people should be accountable for their obligations.

    • Submitted by Richard Owens on 12/22/2018 - 02:06 pm.

      No, you are misapplying the label, “racist”. The white chauvinist doesn’t see the historical wounds of disadvantage. They pretend the wounds don’t exist, but they do.

      Racism is a system of control and discrimination asserted by the predominant cultural group over a minority group. Blacks rarely have such power over whites.

      See, for example, the Uigers treatment at the hands of the majority Chinese Han. It doesn’t require White versus Black. Japanese are also known to discriminate between Japanese and “others” in a way that keeps the treatment of the minority unjust and unfair. Those are probably acts that can be accurately described as racist.

      America has long used this kind of discrimination to segregate the white from the black cultures, and to keep education, job training and other opportunities unavailable to minorities. As an example, few black soldiers ever got the GI Bill after WWII. Also, e.g., atudents of color are disciplined more harshly.

      Once you acknowledge that Black culture cannot hurt white culture in the historic way Whites have hurt the participation of Blacks as equal members of society, then you can see a wrong has been done that has long-lasting negative effects caused by racism.

      It behooves us as members of a free society to include all who have been left behind through no fault of their own in the promise of equal opportunity and equal justice. That requires therapies and social forms of organization that will close that gap.

      We all need some remediation in helping build the society we SAY we want. Whites have complaints too, but they have not been the victims of a system that intentionally kept them out for so long.

      Even since the great migration, the North kept all the segregation features, redlining made the poor black neighborhoods by shady real estate deals that actually tried to flip home with race baiting.

      The New York Times has been running a series called Race Related. Once a week there are new stories that will help white people understand a little what its like to be a person of color, everyday, everywhere, in many different degrading and humiliating ways.

      Check it out.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/23/2018 - 07:28 am.

        If there is a program of loan forgiveness for Minnesota teachers, to which teachers of a a particularly skin tone need not apply, that is racist.

        How would such a program improve educational outcomes or in any way help students of color?

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/25/2018 - 01:12 am.

        I am not giving the nytimes my personal information to access the linked stories.

        What it is like in many and degrading ways clearly includes loan forgiveness for educational professionals of color. It does violence to their self respect.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/17/2018 - 07:49 pm.

    I am so pro-education that I believe students and families should be able to choose the schools and the teachers they desire.

  6. Submitted by Dave Eischens on 12/17/2018 - 09:14 pm.

    Thank you Ms. Craig for your insight on this issue, it’s super important to hear from educators of color who are “on the front line” in our schools today. My view from the outside is definitely limited.

    Somewhat parroting Mr. Finn, I too would be interested in reading follow-up articles from you. But not so much on the documented historical bias within our education system, but more so on the progress and barriers you encounter, what works and what doesn’t in the real world.

    I’d think everyone could agree that when our kids do better we all do better.

  7. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/18/2018 - 09:09 am.

    “Tim Walz’s plan to increase teacher salary and provide loan forgiveness for educators of color is a start.”

    So, as one of his first acts, the incoming Governor plans to institute a race tested expenditure of public money. Super.

    I wonder if he’s included the cost of the doomed defense of his blatantly unconstitutional plan in his budget?

    I attended a school (in California) where I was a member of the minority race. Our srudent body was 2/3 Latino and black kids.

    Was it uncomfortable? Sure, sometimes. But every one of my siblings and I graduated and most went on to college.

    We had many Latino teachers; our Dean was black. Although racial conflicts arose among students from time to time, I dont remember the race and ethniciry of the staff mattering a bit to us.

    IMO, race baiting is nothing more than a smokescreen for the real issues people don’t want to address.

  8. Submitted by Chris Commers on 12/18/2018 - 06:17 pm.

    Thanks Cristin Craig for your piece on teachers of color! You do a great job of gently but directly laying out the need for change. Our public school cultures in MN were built on a white middle class values system. I’m grateful that you are sticking it out and that you find joy in an incredibly difficult job (you refer to joy in seeing students succeed!).

    There is some push back in the comments following your article. I may be a dumb old white guy but I’m not an idiot, these attempts to defend the status quo or attack efforts of reform do violence to all of us. Our educational system is just one of several (housing, health care, employment, banking) set up with both explicit and implicit biases against people of color. Klein Bank’s redlining (biased loan practices), employer bias on job applications that are identical except for the names indicating race, housing development covenants that denied access to many Minneapolis neighborhoods, and immoral racial disparities in health care outcomes all illustrate institutional racism in the Twin Cities. We have one of the largest achievement or opportunity gaps in the country when comparing outcomes between white students and students of color. And WCCO, is reporting MN as #2 on list of most “unequal” states in racial terms (24/7 Wallstreet website).

    White teachers can become or are already aware of racist structures in our educational system. White teachers are and will be part of the solution to inviting students of color into more equitable schools. And we need so many more teachers of color! We know this as we struggle to show students of color that we can see their innocence. And the data tells us so. Having at least one black teacher in elementary school significantly increases the chances that low-income black students graduate high school and consider attending college – and, for poor black boys, it decreases the risk of dropping out by nearly 40 percent (IZA Institute for Labor Economics).
    Thanks for your “community voice” Cristin Craig!

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/20/2018 - 03:21 pm.

      “do violence to all of us”?

      Do you know the definition of the word “violence”?

      When someone states an opinion not in agreement with your opinion, that is not violence. It is merely a transparent attempt to stifle real and meaningful discussion.

      • Submitted by Tory Koburn on 12/23/2018 - 12:44 pm.

        Chris’ use of the word “violence” is in the figurative sense, and is correct.

        Per Merriam Webster: ” injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation”

        As in, “the translation does violence to the original novel,” or “Racism, classism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and heterosexism are wicked problems of structural violence.”

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/24/2018 - 12:11 am.

          A metaphorical definition is one which dilutes the true meaning. So often I hear the calls for conversations we need to have. And, just as often, I see such attempts to have these needed conversations shut down by those intolerant of a differing opinion. My opinion does no violence.

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