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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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