Original photo by Blue Olive
The U.S. Department of Education just held its first Teacher Diversity Summit. I heard speaker after speaker fire up their furnaces, from Secretary John B. King asserting that diversity isn't just a nicety, to Howard University Dean of Education Leslie Fenwick tearing down the house with some hard truths. The audience, including members of TeachStrong initiative: the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and Teach for America, revved up to continue the work of building a more diverse teaching profession.
My role was to introduce AFT President Randi Weingarten and say a few words about my teaching experience as an exemplar of the subject at hand. I opted to deliver a spoken word piece about my own experience and the historical repression of teachers of color. I spoke about the restrictive conditions so many of us work in, the perseverance and self-determination of my students, and the ways in which I, as a teacher of color, embody reparations institutionally.
With the five minutes I had up there, I did not have the opportunity to speak about how we are dismantling diversity. Most of the facts that we hear are about the diversity gap between public school students and the adults who teach them. While the majority of students in public schools are non-white ( about 51 percent), only one in six teachers identifies as a teacher of color.
At first glance, that might not mean much on paper. After all, in 1987-88, teachers of color represented 12.4 percentof the teaching force, whereas in 2011-12, they represented 17.3 percent of the teaching population. In raw numbers, that’s a 104 percent increase. A plethora of organizations from Teach for America and the Center for American Progress to colleges and universities across the United States have joined the call for more educators of color, and have plastered us across flyers and newsletters to change the vision of what a teacher looks like. President Barack Obama’s My Brother's Keeper Initiative has made grants to programs like Call Me MISTER, NYC Men Teach, and The Fellowship in Philadelphia, programs targeted at promoting and recruiting male educators of color to the teaching profession.
But if we don’t confrontthe reality teachers of color face this well-intended social justice effort won’t amount to more than a fad.
Secretary of Education King calls attention to what he calls an “invisible tax:”
According to some African American male teachers, the “invisible tax” is imposed on them when they are the only or one of only a few nonwhite male educators in the building. It is paid, for example, when these teachers, who make up only 2 percent of the teaching force nationally, are expected to serve as school disciplinarians based on an assumption that they will be better able to communicate with African American boys with behavior issues.
He goes on to make specific mention of some of the ways teachers of color consistently shoulder additional professional duties that almost always fall in their laps, including disciplining students of color, and having to “talk white” in order to be taken seriously..
William A. Smith calls this “racial fatigue”— the mental and physical weariness of having to navigate personal and professional spaces that often favor white people. The educational subset of racial fatigue often posits educators of color as both the problem and solution to improving failing (read: failed) schools. No wonder teachers of color are coming in at higher rates than ever before, but also leaving faster than their white counterparts. As working conditions in places like Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles continue to depreciate, leaders continue to push educators to do more with less (and even work for nothing).
Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, we’ve seen countless instances of teacher bashing, but the coded language used against educators has particular educational ramifications. For example, the old southern strategy, a technique used by politicians to appeal to disaffected white people, has historical ties to school desegregation.
After Brown vs. Board of Education, almost 40,000 black educators lost their jobs across the South. Black educators were pushed aside to protect white teachers’ jobs even if they were highly regarded leaders in their communities.
On the surface, the national mandates on southern states to conform to the new laws of the land looked like steps forward. But a large swath of black former educators paid the price for “progress”. Even after entire careers teaching children who shared similar backgrounds, administrators and superintendents called them less qualified to teach “their own kids.”
In contemporary times, the “southern strategy” in education shows itself in the presentations and pleas to venture capital renditions of social justice, where policy makers promise to reward good teachers and punish bad teachers. In front of communities of color, they issue calls for corporate education reform using words like “lazy,” “union member,” and “left right at the bell.” Statements like these erase decades of work to sustain crumbling institutions. Their calls for social justice belie the push for an education reform agenda on the backs of the supposed beneficiaries of their efforts to save the schools.
On a professional level there is solid support for hope and optimism. Research shows teachers of color see their students of color as more gifted than their white teacher counterparts. Teachers of color have positive effects on white students, too , challenging their stereotypes about authority and intellect. Teachers of color are conduits for communities, helping bridge the gap between communities in and out of school. Profiles of 2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes highlight her promotion of community service with her students, and how she created partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, Relay for Life, and the American Cancer Society. One of America’s favorite teacher movies, Stand and Deliver, shows Los Angeles legend Jaime Escalante interacting with the community around the school.
Yet, too often educators of color are relegated to the role of overseer. I don’t use that term lightly. Here’s a list of observations teachers of color have made to me:
“I’m often the one that they send all the bad kids to, even when I already have a full teaching load.”
“Whenever I asked to get paid more, they ask me to be a dean or work with the kids they consider the worst.”
“Every time I ask if I can change this scripted lesson plan, I get rebuffed, but they love that I can keep my classes neat and quiet.”
“I can’t go to a professional development session where I can speak on pedagogy. They always ask me about classroom management.”
“I was hired years ago as an assistant principal, but they got me here only working on discipline plans like I don’t know how to teach.”
Comments like these feed my skepticism about the recruitment of teachers of color. In New York City, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, we don’t have a teacher diversity problem in all schools. On average, teachers of color comprise about half of the teaching staff in schools deemed poor. Yet, as income levels rise in schools, the number of teachers of color drops. Perhaps some teachers of color want to work in schools where students look like them—it’s true for me. On the other hand, high-income schools frequently do not hire educators of color, including the specialized high schools.
This corresponds to the ethos proffered by former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who used to blow a social justice trumpet before becoming Fox News magnate Rupert Murdoch’s consigliere. In the middle of shaking up organizational and managerial structures for almost a decade as the head of NYC schools, he also transformed Tweed Courthouse into an incubator for MBAs, Ivy Leaguers, and other non-educators interested in the new wave of education reform, to test their ideas on schools and districts across the city. Many educators would describe the visitors as young, blond twenty-somethings with book-smarts coming to tell long-time educators how to use some trendy, in-demand education guru’s language as a hammer and a checklist to shape up schools.
Should these schools not conform to these ever-changing demands, they may be be stripped of autonomy, restructured, handed over to an education management firm (that often doesn’t have a workable plan to fix things, either), charterized, and shut down.
How do organizations that perpetually contribute to the shuttering of schools and firing of teachers reconcile their own diversity initiatives? How do teacher organizations on any side of the education reform argument not talk about the ways teacher certification tests are biased by race and class, or push back against white-centered visions of professionalism?
If teachers of color more often than not work in poor schools, and these are the schools constantly under threat of restructuring and cleansing, it stands to reason that the very policies that purportedly work in the name of social justice have, in fact, done a large disservice in the form of retaining the educators of color we now seek.
How do we defend a profession that purportedly seeks to recruit educators of color, but, once there, decides they are not worth the money, time, or energy to support?
A year before the Teacher Diversity Summit, I was at the Department of Education speaking to dozens of educators of color and policymakers about the lack of opportunity, representation, and mobility—how so few of us are encouraged to get National Board accreditation, how few of us go to national conferences and speak on our personal experiences, and how so many of our brethren would love to become teachers but, due to financial circumstances including massive student debt, simply cannot. The responses I received ranged from wild applause and follows on Twitter to bristling criticism and pointed exclusion from closed-door meetings. .. also became None of this bothered me, as I became the first teacher of color to become the National Teacher of the Year since 2006.
We must continue advocating in the most formal spaces, and break decorum in the name of true equity.
Progressives need to know that whatever happens to educators of color eventually happens to all educators. Students should have effective, well-paid teachers regardless of race, class, gender, or ability. Every teacher needs to handle every student who comes into the classroom, and every school community needs to learn how to work with our so-called most difficult students.
These might sound like truisms. But for the kids who are most vulnerable to the negative impact of corporate education reform, we need to treat the teachers on the front lines with the utmost respect. That surely is an important and visible reparation.
José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist in New York City, NY. He is the author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, and has spoken about education, math, and race for The New York Times, Education Week, The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post, Edutopia, GOOD, and El Diario / La Prensa, NY.