Commentary: Teachers as mirrors, a reflection on the diversity gap
Guest contributor | October 16, 2015
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Growing up Mexican-American in a predominantly white community in Oregon, I never had a Latino teacher. I remember men of color working as security guards and coaches, but no one of my ethnicity led a classroom. Even in our textbooks, Cesar Chavez merited just a paragraph.
While many Los Angeles residents know we are facing a teacher shortage, there is a second shortage threatening our schools that is less familiar: a diversity shortage. Statewide, 73 percent of students in California schools are nonwhite, compared with only 29 percent of teachers. It’s one of the largest diversity gaps nationwide. LA Unified has recognized the problem. In a memo last month to LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines, a human resources officer said recruiting diverse teacher candidates from colleges and universities around California “will continue to be a challenge especially as Latino and African American college graduate data remain unrepresented.”
Last month, the Albert Shanker Institute released a report sounding the alarm on teacher diversity. It found that the teacher work force has gotten less ethnically and racially diverse, and more female, compared with student populations. The diversity gap reportedly has had an adverse effect on students, particularly students of color, whose test scores and completion rates continue to lag behind their white peers in California and beyond.
To spur achievement, the Shanker report points to diversity as one possible solution. Teachers of color “tend to have higher academic expectations for minority students, which can result in increased academic and social growth among students,” it says.
But where to find the teachers? Southern California districts and charter networks count Teach For America-Los Angeles among their reliable partners for diverse, high-potential leaders for classrooms and school administration. This year the Teach For America-Los Angeles corps of first-year teachers is more diverse than ever before: more than 50 percent identify as Latino, 13 percent as African American, 13 percent as white and 12 percent as Asian American.
Among all LAUSD’s K-through-12 teachers, whites remain the plurality, at 39 percent, with 35 percent Latino, 10 percent African American and 10 percent Asian America.
When I got my first job teaching through Teach For America, it was at a school in Inglewood that was 97 percent African American. I realized very quickly that I couldn’t rely on a shared Mexican-American identity to inspire learning. While my students were interested in my background as a man of color, our differences forced me dig deeper. I examined my 8th grade U.S. History curriculum and found ways to extend the conversation and find connections for my students. The curriculum became U.S. History through a Black History lens. If I couldn’t be a mirror as a teacher, I wanted to make sure I was able to create reflections of my students in the content.
Still, the demographic gap weighed heavily on my mind. For part of my master’s thesis, I interviewed all sorts of students and families about their preference for the race of the teacher in the classroom. Most of them said they didn’t care about race — as long as teachers are strong in the classroom. Like them, I had witnessed many teachers excel with students of different backgrounds, and I had seen teachers of color rely too much on their commonality. However, we cannot ignore the opportunity for additional impact that teachers of color can make.
After moving to my current school in predominantly Latino neighborhood of Echo Park, I remember my student Carlos asking,“Mr. Solano, are you Mexican?” Admittedly, my light skin does not give me the “traditional Latino” look. When I responded strong with a “Yes!,” Carlos replied, “I knew there was something different about you! You remind me of my brothers!”
From that point forward, Carlos came to me with whatever challenge he was facing. While I could not pretend that my upbringing in Oregon was the same as his in Echo Park, we grew closer in our similarities and learned from our differences. The personal bond formed over a common identity translated to outcomes in the classroom, as well.
But as the Shanker researchers attest, it’s not just students of color who benefit from diverse teachers; all students do. Positive exposure to diverse races and ethnicities, especially in childhood, can help reduce stereotypes, curb implicit biases, promote cross-cultural friendships and prepare all students to succeed in an increasingly diverse state. And, perhaps, become culturally responsive teachers.
Ultimately, educational equity goes beyond the race and ethnicity of our teachers in the classroom. Just as important as who teaches, is what they teach. As a Latino teacher of students of many races, I believe there is incredible value in being the mirror, but also in holding the mirror. Students should see their reflections in what they learn as well as who is teaching.
Emilio Solano teaches 8th grade ELA, history and ethnic studies at the Sandra Cisneros Campus of the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy.