Next year is my last in high school, and I have never had a teacher who looks like me — all of my teachers have been white, with a few exceptions. And while I’ve received a relatively well-rounded education, there was always one important thing missing. Today, I wonder what I could have learned or discovered by having a more diverse set of teachers.
And I am not alone. My friends of all races and genders throughout the district have shared how having more teachers of color would open new horizons through building relationships with role models from many backgrounds.
Because we share similar experiences, teachers of color can build unique relationships that help kids like me through difficult times, just as one teacher did after I was verbally attacked my freshman year. A senior ranted about how black and white people shouldn’t mix and that there is something “wrong” with biracial people. I was frozen, unable to process how someone could have so much hatred for people like me. When I went to a teacher for help, she guided me to a biracial educator. Speaking to her made me feel safe again at school. She shared stories about her experience as a biracial black woman and I related to her on a level I had never experienced with another teacher. All students should have someone like this.
These relationships can bolster academics. At my school, I’ve noticed the bonds that black students formed with our black security guards, seeking them out in the hallways. With teachers of color, those bonds could exist in the classroom as well, not solely with disciplinary figures. Potentially, if there were an AP teacher of color, more students of color would enroll in AP classes. The people students build relationships with in schools influence their trajectories.
The lack of teachers of color begins in the same classrooms they should be leading. The experiences black and brown students have in school make it hard for them to see a teaching career for themselves. The education system was built for people who don’t have to jump over hurdles because of racism. If students of color feel that school is working against us, why would we ever want to be teachers? With more teachers of color, all students would benefit from more diverse role models, and students of color would see leaders who look like them. Unless we embrace bold initiatives to change this dynamic, we will miss the opportunity to inspire future generations of diverse teachers.
We can start by providing a supportive community for teacher candidates of color so they are set up to succeed. I glimpsed the added challenges that come with being a future educator of color when a college student shared his experience as the only black male in his education program. Among the many struggles, he detailed the racism he must overcome, such as when his peers claim the awards he received were because of his race rather than merit. We need to put resources into connecting black and brown prospective teachers with each other so they can find strength in relationships such as the one I had with the biracial teacher who saved my education.
Representation matters in every aspect of our lives. Seeing a teacher who looks like you or a teacher who looks different from you opens your eyes to new ways of learning. And while the solution may not be straightforward, the benefits are.
Rayna Acha is a senior at South High School in Minneapolis, a community activist, and a student voice intern at Educators for Excellence – Minnesota.
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