Black people are significantly underrepresented in the education profession. Nationally, only about 7% of all public-school teachers are black. This means that a student has a significant chance of going through school without having one at all.
I was lucky enough to go to a school where I had a few Black teachers. They weren’t always my favorite teachers, but I knew even then that I had more Black teachers than my peers at other schools. In my senior year of college, when Teach For America was recruiting me to teach in an inner-city classroom, they mentioned the shortage of people like me in the profession. And some of the other people I talked to about it assured me that my background would immediately give me a certain level of understanding and credibility in the classroom from day one.
That was not the case. My first year was a disaster. Being Black didn’t make me a better teacher than anyone. It didn’t even make me a good one. However, it did mean something to the students. It must have been because students frequently told me back then that I was the first Black teacher they ever had. I wish I could have been a better teacher for them back then, but it was nice that they finally saw themselves represented.
Fast forward ten years: I am a much better teacher… But students are still telling me that I am the first Black teacher they ever had. My school does a pretty good job of making sure teams are diverse, so these are typically students who came from elsewhere. But enough of them still say it, so it feels like we haven’t even put a dent in the problem.
This isn’t just about representation. (Though that alone would be enough to justify the conversation.) There are very real and tangible benefits that come from Black students having even a few Black teachers. Black students who had even one Black teacher in elementary are 13% more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college and 32% more likely if they had multiple Black teachers. And just for the record, white kids should probably have a few Black teachers too.
To be clear, this is not to say Black kids should only have Black teachers. Many of my best teachers growing up came from a different background than me and the same is true today for the students I teach. It’s also not saying that all the Black teachers are somehow objectively “better,” because I’ve definitely seen some bad ones. But it is a push to start considering the perspective of our Black youth. When Black students go through 12 years of the education system without one Black teacher the message that they receive is that “education isn’t for you.” Unfortunately, the aforementioned data seems to bear that out.
Tomorrow, September 9, the Center for Black Educator Development is raising awareness around the lack of teacher diversity with a youth-organized, youth-led call to action: #WeNeedBlackTeachers. Let’s act on this issue.