I acknowledge that what I am about to say is awkward, but I’m going to say it anyway. I have never felt the need to exclusively be around people who look like me or come from my background. I gave up on that early on in life. Growing up in the racially segregated Pittsburgh region, it was rare that I ran into someone who had a background similar to mine – white, Jewish mother; black, Christian father; lower-middle income SES, single-parent household. I walked through the world not really paying attention to race and class because I didn’t have the luxury of understanding its relevance in my life.
That all changed when I moved to New York City in 2008. I was working at a new graduate school of education that was actively hiring to fill new positions. A dynamic woman named Dena was hired. We looked similar, shared similar interests, and had similar perspectives about education and life in general. We even had the same hair texture, which (for those who have curly hair, you already understand) is a BIG deal! Anyway, as we got to know each other, we learned that we both had a white, Jewish parent; a black, Christian parent; lived in lower-middle income households; and were raised by single mothers. The similarities were striking! I started to notice that anytime I worked with Dena, I felt immediately at-ease and had confidence that was greater than my usual default of self-doubt. I enjoyed working with each of my coworkers and developed several close friendships while I was there, but this one stood out for me. It took me a lot of time and intentional effort to build the bonds that I did with my other coworkers, but with Dena, it was almost seamless.
One day, I had an “aha moment” and figured out why. This was exactly what I had been missing all those years – representation! Someone who deeply and personally understood me. Most students of color in our region rarely (if ever) experience representation from the people that they spend a large portion of their lives with – their teachers. In fact, a recent report authored by Research for Action, highlights alarming statistics about a decline in black teacher representation within Allegheny County. Here are some of the key findings from that and other related reports:
- Pennsylvania has the least diverse educator workforce in the United States (96% of teachers are white). The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is piloting the Aspiring to Educate program in Philadelphia to help address diversity in the educator workforce.
- While Pittsburgh’s population of Black people has increased by about 8% in recent years, the number of Black teachers has dropped by about 10%.
- Black teachers across the state are more than twice as likely to leave the teaching profession as their white peers, citing a lack of support from administrators, inadequate pay, and higher expectations than their peers.
- Considering future readiness, it is important to note that companies diverse in ethnicity are 36% more likely to financially outperform their peers.
- 65% of Black professionals report that they must work harder than their white peers in order to advance.
- Programs like the AIU’s new BridgeUP initiative are addressing the teacher shortage and advancement gaps by building a teacher pipeline through training and certifying classroom aides, paraprofessionals, and support staff.
I invite you to read the reports below and watch the Research for Action webinar recap for more details. As a person of color (POC) and former teacher of color (TOC) I know all too well the loud and silent aggressions that are faced day in and day out in the profession. It is my hope that reports like this one will aid in shedding light on the importance of representation in the classroom and make a difference for students and educators alike.
Opportunities for Reflection
- Looking back on your educational experience, did your teachers/professors share a similar background with you? If so, how did that affect you? If not, how did that affect you?
- As a classroom teacher or school leader, how might you support students and colleauges whose backgrounds are not well-represented by the teacher/leader population in your building/district?
- How often do all of your students learn about the societal contributions of individuals who share their background?
- How does the curriculum for your content area or grade level represent the discoveries, influences, and perspectives of people from different backgrounds? How might you impact areas where there are gaps and unrealized opportunities?