Why Schools Need More Teachers of Color—for White Students

Nonwhite educators can offer new and valuable perspectives for children of all backgrounds.

A sixth-grade class in Chicago in 1963 (Michael 1952 / Flickr)

Noah Caruso, 17, calls South Philadelphia home. Known for cheesesteaks, pizza, and bakeries, South Philly is a close-knit, largely Italian American neighborhood where much of the population has traditionally shared the same background, culture, and race. Though an influx of immigrants has made the area more diverse in recent decades, South Philly, like the rest of the city, remains highly segregated. Caruso’s predominantly white community was echoed at his middle school, Christopher Columbus Charter School, where he says all of his teachers were white like him, as were virtually all of his classmates. It was against this backdrop that Caruso enrolled in Science Leadership Academy (SLA)—a public magnet high school in the city—and landed in the freshman English class of Matthew Kay, his first black teacher.

Now a rising senior, Caruso looks back with appreciation on his ninth-grade year in Kay’s class. “He’s the most inspiring teacher I ever had by far,” Caruso said, recalling Kay’s emphasis and commentary on fraught topics such as present-day racism. “He definitely pushed us to really think about these social issues [that] weren’t talked about before in my life because everyone grew up in the same area,” he continued. “We were all white … and everyone had the same opinion.” Caruso recalled a class in which Kay had students watch a scene from American History X, a graphic 1998 film about neo-Nazis and white supremacy in America. The teacher, Caruso noted, didn’t hold back in expressing his perspective on the persistence of prejudice in the country. It was one of many discussions with Kay that Caruso said opened his eyes “to all of these things I never even thought about before ... It inspired me to want to do something about it.”

The importance of recruiting and retaining more teachers of color for students of color is well-reported and deeply researched. Most teachers—over 80 percent—are white, and surveys suggest that won’t change anytime soon. Among the ACT-tested graduates in 2014 who said they planned on pursuing an education major, 72 percent were white, compared to 56 percent of all tested students. Yet nonwhite children are now believed to make up a majority of the country’s public-school population. Studies show that, academically, nonwhite teachers produce more favorable outcomes for students of similar backgrounds; emotionally and socially, these educators serve as role models who share students’ racial and ethnic identity. What hasn’t gotten much attention, however, are the potential gains for white students.

The call for more teachers of color has grown more urgent in recent years because of America’s changing demographics. In an increasingly multiracial, multicultural society, some education experts question the impact on white students’ world views when the face of teaching almost always mirrors their own. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an African American professor of urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, broached this subject in a recent essay for Education Week responding to the apparent decline in nonwhite teachers—what some observers have described as a “disappearance crisis.” “I want to suggest that there is something that may be even more important than black students having black teachers and that is white students having black teachers! It is important for white students to encounter black people who are knowledgeable,” she wrote. “What opportunities do white students have to see and experience black competence?”

In public schools, where roughly 90 percent of the country’s children are enrolled, the lessons students learn are often skewed because of who is delivering the instruction and what kind of curricula and learning materials that instruction entails. Not only is the vast majority of the country’s teaching force white, but Eurocentric attitudes also tend to filter into classrooms. Some scholars, including the Temple University African American studies professor Ama Mazama, even attribute the notable rise in homeschooling among black families in part to the predominance of Eurocentric school curricula and teacher perspectives. American children’s literature is also often limited to white characters and narratives.

Anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that teachers of color can help disrupt what are often one-sided portrayals of the world and offer invaluable insight to students from different backgrounds. After all, while Millennials see themselves as—and are widely believed to be—the most tolerant generation in American history, “beneath the facade of a colorblind generation remains a deep underclass,” wrote the Demos researcher Sean McElwee in an Al Jazeera op-ed earlier this year. “Millennials are not as racially progressive as the narrative suggests.” One study in 2007 found that youth aged 10 through 19 had just as much “implicit racial bias” as older generations did—and compared to some age groups, even more of it.

In Los Angeles, Joel Laguna, a Latino middle-school English and history teacher, incorporates discussions of his own ethnicity into classroom lessons in an effort to deepen his students’ cultural understanding. According to Laguna, achieving that is possible in a classroom community where all his students, many of whom are white, feel validated. Laguna previously taught at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, which he calls the “quintessential Mexican American school”; virtually 100 percent of the student population is Hispanic and low-income. There he would talk in class about his childhood as an immigrant, and his personal experiences, he said, would instantly resonate with his students. Now, at Thomas Starr King Middle School, located in the Silver Lake area, Laguna has a much more diverse crop of students—racially, ethnically, and economically—which he says lends itself to much different, fruitful classroom exchanges on social issues like immigration.

Introducing these topics into class discussions is “a tricky balance, because I don’t know how much these kids, especially white kids, are being exposed to these issues or discussing them at home,” Laguna said. “As a Latino teacher, I am trying to be that role model and at the same time trying to open that door.” While many white students in the country are certainly aware of and sympathetic to the challenges faced by people of color, many others, Laguna suggested, aren’t. This past spring, during the height of the Baltimore uprising, Laguna’s students led a two-hour discussion that examined racial profiling. “A lot of the white kids were quiet,” he said,“but they were listening.” As the conversation progressed, a white student asked why all of the models she sees on billboards are white, too. It was at that moment, Laguna noted, that “I knew we were ‘going there’ with these kids.”

As a teacher of color Laguna feels a responsibility to humanize subjects like immigration to ensure that all students, not just those who’ve experienced it first-hand, understand the issue’s complexities. And when it comes to the white students in his class who he says have had less exposure to different cultural realities, Laguna believes he’s making inroads regarding their perception of people of color. He recounts a lesson last year on undocumented immigrants, most of whom work in low-wage jobs. According to Laguna, one of his white students responded: “Well, if you want a better job you have to work harder.” Laguna didn’t take offense to the comment; the boy, he suggested, simply hadn’t had an opportunity to challenge his own preconceived notions. “What I’ve developed over time is asking, ‘Why do you think that?’” Laguna continued. “Middle school is all about planting seeds,” he said.

Juanita Douglas, a veteran African American teacher at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago, shared similar experiences. Douglas said she’s frequently the first black teacher many of her students have ever had; about 28 percent of the school’s students are white, compared to 9 percent of students district-wide. As an honors history and law teacher she sees her role as helping all of her students sharpen their writing and oral-communication skills. But achieving these goals can be tricky, especially when it comes to her white students, said Douglas, citing the challenges she often faces in connecting with them and reconciling any differences in perspective. “I’ll have white kids come up to me and say, ‘2 Chainz has a new song,’ and I have to stop them and say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m 50 years old, and I don’t know who 2 Chainz is.” While Douglas recognizes their need to connect, she stresses that “I’m not black and cool … their image of black”—an image influenced by pop culture and rap music. “I’m black and a teacher.”

Douglas typically starts the school year discussing the concept of racial identity and harnessing what students have in common—what else defines them—other than their race. The idea is to get students to ask themselves, “Who am I as a human being?” Douglas said. “Once we get that settled, then we can move into education.” She also seeks to engage her classes in activities in which students from other schools also participate—academic events where the vast majority of attendees aren’t white, for example—in an effort to teach them both academic lessons and lessons about life. “That’s reality: Sometimes you might be the only white person,” she said “This world is increasingly becoming of color. [My students] should be comfortable with their other schoolmates.”

According to Douglas, who’s the only black teacher in her department, Lincoln Park employed 25 black teachers back when she started working there 15 years ago; today only eight remain. This is a trend seen across the Chicago Public Schools: Just 23 percent of the district’s teachers are black, down from 40 percent in 2000. “I don’t think people are willing to say that teachers of color are important for all students,” Douglas said, criticizing what she described as the Chicago district’s failure to recruit a more diverse staff. “I think they think the black teacher is in place just so the black students have someone to talk to ... [A diverse teaching force] can benefit society and all students.”

The societal advantages of more teachers of color become clearer when considering the racial socialization—or the processes by which people develop their ethnic identities—of white adults, including the parents who may stumble in communicating racial understanding to their children. A Public Religion Research Institute study on “American Values” circulated last summer, following the shooting in Ferguson, showed that 75 percent of white Americans have all-white social networks. This self-segregation could help explain the racial divide over Michael Brown's death and why it was seemingly so hard for many whites to understand what transpired in Ferguson: Their worldview was restricted to mostly white friends and family. And in a 2014 study researchers found that “the messages that white teens received [from parents regarding race] were contradictory and incomplete,” concluding that schools are a crucial link in building “productive and genuine relationships” between whites and people of color.

This finding tracks with the experience of Matthew Kay, Caruso’s English teacher in Philadelphia. Kay, who just completed his ninth year in the classroom, is purposeful and precise in his teaching style. Informally and without fuss, he seeks to challenge misguided perceptions of black people’s work ethic and dismantle preconceived notions about black men. According to Kay, by interacting daily with people who come from different backgrounds, white students who harbor stereotypes and prejudgments may be able to chip away at those convictions.

“If they come into the class feeling black people are dumb, that’s not going to survive contact with me or my black students for very long anyway,” he said. “I want [white students] to know that we work hard—[that we have] intellectual curiosity.” In his day-to-day dealings with students, Kay also fights the widespread, centuries-old narrative that black men are driven by anger and frustration. “I am affectionate and caring … I think it’s important that [the students] see we have the capacity to love.”

Underpinning it all, Kay said, are his close relationships with students and his ability to offer them a safe space to investigate and reflect on any racial privileges they enjoy without being made to feel morally deficient for having white skin. These kinds of relationship-building opportunities, he said, are lacking in too many schools and are seldom encouraged in undergraduate teaching programs. “In reality that should be 60 percent of what you learn,” he argued.

Kay practices this principle in the classroom and also as the founder and coordinator of the Philly Youth Poetry Movement Slam League, which took the top prize this summer at an international youth poetry competition. One of his white students and poets, Veronica Nocella, 17, describes her relationship with Kay as one that “really transcends the classroom.” Nocella says she got into slam poetry because of him, adding that she was going through a tough time when she got involved and that the experience has been “life-changing.” The slam-poetry program, Nocella said, offered “an environment where I felt the most human.”

Nocella, one of Kay’s students, says that he’s helped her discover slam poetry and express tough experiences she’s had. (Lee Mokobe)

Of course, integrated and diverse student bodies are just as important as interracial student-teacher pairings when it comes to building a more racially literate generation. Greta Haskell, another student at SLA, where the demographics closely reflect those of Philadelphia, said learning alongside students of color helps actualize the new perspectives she gains from nonwhite teachers. Last December, Haskell participated in a “die-in” at SLA to protest the non-indictment in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. “If I went off to college [as a white student] and didn’t know how to interact with [people not like me] I wouldn’t feel prepared,” Haskell said.

The racial composition makes the school a place where students “listen to each other and absorb what the other students are saying and make sense of it,” said Larissa Pahomov, an SLA teacher of color who serves on the school’s diversity committee. And according to the education professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, white students are “more likely to have a concrete understanding of racial and social injustices” and less likely to be prejudiced when they’re immersed in racially diverse schools. Still, the push for diverse schools—which in part because of housing segregation are uncommon nationwide—typically highlights an array of benefits for students of color, rather than that for their white counterparts.

Indeed, combined with an integrated student population, a diverse teaching staff can work to dispel myths about people of color and ultimately improve race relations. Yet while teacher diversity is helpful at an individual level, there are limitations to its potential systematically, cautioned Thomas M. Philip, an education professor at UCLA whose work focuses on racial ideology and teachers. Philip warned that putting the onus on teachers of color to carry the burden of discussions on larger historical and political issues carries significant risks, ranging from exceptionalism and tokenism to individualizing an institutional responsibility. “Part of the pattern is that people who experience the brunt of racism are called upon to engage these conversations while those who privilege from it are let off the hook,” leading to a problematic dynamic in which black teachers are expected to talk about Ferguson while an honest conversation about whiteness and privilege isn’t expected from a white teacher, Philip said.

Teacher diversity, Philip stressed, must be accompanied by systemic practices that support all educators in constructively navigating issues of race, racism, and racial justice. To do otherwise, he said, is to allow some to abdicate their role in engaging the same issues deeply and profoundly. “The unique strengths and perspectives of teachers of color are more likely to be beneficial for students if all educators, particularly white teachers and administrators, embrace the responsibility to work for racial equity and justice.”

Nevertheless, the immediate and long-term payoff of pairing teachers of color with white students is evident. Cedar Riener, a cognitive psychologist and professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, treasures his education in D.C. public schools for providing him with diverse teachers. (Compared to other states, D.C. has one of the highest percentages of nonwhite teachers in the country: In 2008, roughly two-thirds of its teacher workforce was black.) “My nerdy black chess coach and artistic black English teacher each undermined my own unconscious prejudice in their own ways,” he said, “ways I didn’t realize at the time in middle school and high school.”