I just returned to in-person classes, and I expected it to be somewhat hard, but not for the reasons you may imagine. Along with being elated to be with my students face to face, I also felt a bit wary about how all of it would work in a way that was safe for everyone. I expected challenges such as sick students, having to social distance, wearing PPE all day, and not being able to have close contact with my students.
What I did not expect during my first week back was to serve as support for one of my students of color in a racially charged conversation. I’m not able to always be there for all students of color who face something like this; however, I know my presence as a teacher of color is needed, even if sometimes my advocacy, or my honesty, or even my presence is not welcomed.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the riots at the Capitol, racial tensions in my school and community are even more difficult to navigate. As at many schools in Minnesota, my students and colleagues are predominantly white, which means that I am often the only Black educator available to help students in need.
Recently, a nationally representative sample of 800 full-time, public school teachers showed that teachers are concerned about systemic racism, but in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the related protests, few report receiving any guidance or discussing racial justice and equity with colleagues and/or students. I need more help, and I cannot continue to fight these battles alone.
Ten years ago, I left a well-paying position in corporate America to become a teacher. As an adult, I wanted to break that cycle that Black students face in Minnesota schools with majority-white teachers. Growing up in the state of Minnesota was particularly difficult for me as a Black student. I never had a teacher who reflected my identity, and therefore I felt lost in school, in an education environment that was not designed for my success.
Currently, I’m only one of two teachers of color in my school. This is not OK. Research shows the benefits of being taught by teachers of color for all students, yet we are faced with an increasingly large gap between the diversity of our teacher workforce and the diversity of our student population. And though I’d never regret my chosen career path, I had not realized the financial burden it would cause me when it was time for me to complete student-teaching. Not to mention the burden I still carry with student loan debt.
I understand that we are living in an unprecedented period of time during this legislative session, and that we are facing many problems to solve in Minnesota. Some people argue that the Minnesota Legislature needs to strictly focus on immediate and urgent needs at the expense of continuing the fight for longstanding issues like addressing the shortage of teachers of color. And though there’s no shortage of need for increased resources to students who were most impacted by the pandemic, we also cannot ignore the long-established and enduring shortage of Black, Indigenous, and teachers of color in Minnesota. Teacher diversity cannot take a backseat during this session.
Now is the time. We need more teacher diversity, scholarships for teachers of color, and more alternative pathways for teacher candidates so that when the time comes for teacher candidates to complete their residency or student-teaching, it’s not a financial burden.
I’m tired of waiting, and so are our students.
Pamela Femrite is a veteran special education teacher for eight years who teaches outside the metro area in Minnesota. Pamela is also a member of Educators for Excellence.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)