Teachers of color: Student diversity is up but not educators

Classrooms in California and Sacramento, in particular, are quite diverse ethnically and culturally, but does that diversity reflect among teacher populations? (Feb. 21, 2017)

As an African-American teacher, David Joiner is a rarity in education. Growing up in Louisiana, Joiner said he didn’t see many teachers who looked like him. Instead, he saw what many students see: a teaching workforce that has not kept up with the ever-changing diversity of the classroom.

Despite studies that show students of color prefer teachers who share similar backgrounds, Joiner is part of just four percent of African-American teachers in both Sacramento and California, according to data compiled by ABC10 from the California Department of Education.

“I know it’s difficult for a lot of kids to connect with teachers when you don’t really have teachers that look like you in the classroom,” Joiner told ABC10. “So I thought that, you know, teaching could be something that I could really impact a lot of kids with.”

Joiner works at Sacramento City Unified School District’s Accelerated Academy, a credit recovery program for students who, for various reasons, have fallen behind their peers.

Last year, Joiner, a recent graduate of Grambling State University, was one of six African-American teachers recently recruited from Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCU) by SCUSD as part of the district’s efforts to fill teaching vacancies and increase diversity at the same time.

The district, like many others in the state, are hiring more teachers every year to adhere to policy that would make the student-teacher ratio in kindergarten to third grade classrooms 24 to one by the end of 2021.

According to Tiffany Smith-Simmons, a Human Resources Director with the SCUSD, the district wanted to reach that ratio sooner. 

“About this time last year, I got curious,” Smith-Simmons explained. “I wanted to know how many teachers of color, specifically African-American teachers, Sac City had, because we were faced with a huge opportunity. … I started pitching this idea.”

She said she wanted to recruit at HBCUs because of the impact those soon-to-be teachers could have on the culture of, not only students, but also the district.

She went to five different colleges in four days. That’s when she met and recruited Joiner.

“I met him at Grambling, and I asked him, ‘So why do you want to be a teacher?’” she explained. “He said, ‘Because I’m a black male and I want to influence the future.’ He understands. He gets it. He gets the impact that he has on the future. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for the passion.”

Individualism vs. Collectivism

In addition to being the third largest district in the county, SCUSD is also one of the most diverse.

According to state data from the 2014-2015, 17 percent of the district’s student population is African-American, 17 percent are Asian, 18 percent are White and 38 percent are Latino. And the numbers for Sacramento County are very similar.

The issue, however, is the same diversity is not reflective in the teaching workforce.

According to that same data, despite having a student population comprised of nearly 80 percent of people of color, only 40 percent of the teachers in the district are of color.

Darryl White, chair of the Black Parallel School Board, has been in education for over 30 years as both teacher and administrator. White said the trend is nothing new, and despite attempts to make changes, districts haven’t been able to find permanent solutions.

“There are a number of things that come along that hurt us,” White explained. “And it goes on and on and on in terms of what the issues are. We’re not graduating as many African-Americans as we used to. Enrollment is not what we would like it to be.

“Again, when we make inroads in those areas, something happens that kind just puts us in a tizzy, we lose our focus and we find ourselves again in this position.”

Studies have been done in recent years that examine the impact these numbers have, and most seem to agree: students of color prefer teachers who look like them.

One study done by New York University revealed that middle school and high school students, regardless of their ethnicity, had more favorable perceptions of their African-American and Latino teachers.

Kimberly Biddle, a child development professor at California State University, Sacramento, said she thinks it all boils down to the cultural values.

Ideally, she said, any teacher can teach a child no matter their ethnicity, but sometimes those practices are hard to translate to the real world.

“The majority culture, is what we call individualistic, and people of color are usually what you would call collectivistic,” Biddle explained. “And especially if you’ve been in the United States for a while, because this is a very individualistic country. But we’re usually more collectivistic, where there’s more interdependence.”

And those differences in approach can often trickle down into bigger problems.

“Perception of who those kids are going to be”

California’s zero tolerance policy was enacted in 1989 as a way to crack down on the amount of drugs, guns and abhorrent behavior in school by identifying specific issues administrators can expel for.

While, in theory the policy may have seemed sound to some, studies later showed it was not only ineffective, but it also unintentionally harmed students’ futures.

When studying the effect of the policy, the Vera Institute of Justice found: “Zero tolerance does not make schools more orderly or safe—in fact the opposite may be true. And policies that push students out of school can have life-long negative effects, perhaps severely limiting a young person’s future potential.”

According to White, that same policy has affected more students of color than White students.

“There’s a perception that minority children are probably going to be your offenders,” White said. “It’s like saying, ‘Who’s going to jail today?’ and gave you three pictures and only one of the pictures was an African-American. You’d simply select the African American. It’s the implicit bias—the perception of who those kids are going to be.”

And the numbers back that up.

According to Department of Education Civil Rights Data, African-American students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students.

Other studies report similar conclusions.

According to an academic study published in the Journal of Social Problems, the disproportionate suspension rates could be key in understanding why students of color fall behind their white peers. The study showed suspensions account for at least one fifth of the Black-White achievement gap.

“If that student had someone they could talk to and relate to, and that person was of color, they of course could provide the kind of support that student would need to continue the education,” White said. “One of the biggest issues we see in Zero Tolerance is a person’s inability to understand how to discipline and whom to discipline.”

In California, within a year of the implementation of the willful defiance law—which sought to loosen zero-tolerance by lowering suspensions—a follow-up study by UCLA’s Civil Rights project showed that, especially among African-American students, lower suspensions are correlated with higher academic achievement.

But the gap between black and white student suspensions remains.

“You can’t turn your back on kids, because I believe that they build up an intolerance. It’s like anything else,” Smith-Simmons said. “I think it boils down to the intolerance they build up because they got suspended that one time—it’s not so bad. They get suspended that second time—it’s not so bad.”

Influencing the rest of their lives

The issues in finding teachers of color boils down to one thing.

Smith-Simmons said she believed it’s imperative that students of color see themselves in the profession they one day might want to be in. The cyclical nature of that not only leads to issues in the classroom, but also to less people of color becoming teachers.

“You could think about January 20, 2009 when President Barack Obama was sworn into office,” Smith-Simmons said. “For the first time, little black boys could see themselves as a president of the United States. Never before did they have that visual. I think the same could be said about any profession.”

That’s why she recruits teachers from HBCUs, she said. Teachers like Jeneva Smith, who, like Joiner, was recruited from Grambling State University last year.

Smith, a fifth grade teacher at Leeatata Floyd Elementary School, is from Sacramento and graduated from Valley High School in south Sacramento.

Growing up, Smith said she didn’t have many teachers who looked like her that she could relate to. Fast-forward to present day, and she’s hoping to change that for future generations.

“[Students] need that support early on, and this is part of their foundation,” Smith said. “So what they’re going through now, it’s going to influence the rest of their lives. So for them having these tools and for them having teachers who look like them now, it’ll help them later on in life.”

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