Shared Identity in the Classroom: Our Responsibility To Prioritize a Diverse Educator Workforce

As a Hispanic, first-generation college graduate teaching in Houston, one of the many ways I connected with my students was through our shared identity.

When I taught elementary school, my second graders acknowledged that “I looked just like them,” and parents felt more comfortable when I could speak with them in Spanish. These were small—but significant—relationship builders. When I taught high school, race and culture were much more at the forefront of the minds of my 11th and 12th graders, and conversations about identity and its influence on our perception of ourselves were equally as important to relationship building. Students who previously hadn’t viewed themselves as having college potential, or at least not the potential to attend a certain caliber of college, often told me how their perceptions changed after meeting me and other teachers of color, and learning that “someone like us” could have so many postsecondary options.

All students should see, and be inspired by, someone like them in their schools. The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act provides an opportunity for states to make that happen now. The legislation seeks to promote equity through a variety of channels, including equitable teacher distribution. Through Title II funding flexibility, states can strategically allocate resources to support districts’ and schools’ recruiting and retention efforts.

Equitable distribution makes a difference. The Center for American Progress reports that diversity reinforces teacher effectiveness. “Students who have a teacher to whom they can relate become more engaged, which engenders effort, interest, and confidence—benefits that can enhance student performance.” Yet for many students of color, who make up nearly half of the public school population, having teachers of color is still an anomaly—teachers of color make up only 18 percent of the public school teaching force. How can we shine a light on the unique contribution that minority teachers and leaders can bring to a school?

In January 2015 and again in January 2016, Education First partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to plan and facilitate a series of convenings of education leaders to support the Department’s “Our Students, Our Leaders” initiative, an effort to increase the numbers of people of color in leadership positions within education reform organizations. Other organizations across the country focus on developing, elevating and connecting leaders of color include the Surge Institute, Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) and Latinos for Education. Supporters of increasing diversity in the teacher workforce include the Teacher Quality and Retention Program (TQRP), which provides training and mentioning to aspiring, pre-service and new teachers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). As a result, 200 fellows have impacted more than 1,500 K-12 students annually in high need urban and rural areas. As a part of the Innovation Exchange, the Black & Hispanic/Latino Male Teachers Initiative Networked Improvement Community helps institutions increase the percentage of Black and Hispanic men receiving initial teaching certification through education preparation programs.

These efforts are a strong start, but more must be done to support classrooms and schools where students can experience a shared identity with their teacher or principal. States should take stock of current human capital realities and identify districts that may struggle with recruiting, developing or retaining a diverse workforce. Schools and districts also play a role here—as final hiring decisions for the 2016-17 school year are made, each should assess their own efforts to attract and retain educator talent of color and seek state support when necessary.

As our nation continues to grow, the makeup of our schools continues to change, and it is our responsibility to provide all students with the education they need to be successful. Our efforts will only be strengthened by building a diverse teacher and leader workforce that reflects the students we teach.

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