Celebrate and Support the Strengths Teachers of Color Bring to the Classroom
By Daniel Helena
I recently wrote about a literacy co-teaching model that a special education teacher and I piloted in our school. Our principal and leadership team have now expanded that co-teaching structure so that students who need the most support in English and math in all grade levels can benefit from this approach. The special education department regularly meets with the English and math teachers to discuss how we can all lean on our own respective strengths to best support students. It’s no small feat to close a multi-year gap in students’ literacy abilities, and all of us benefit from having the formal space and resources to give it our best shot. The new structure is also a great example of how a school can give teachers of color like myself a space for our skills and abilities to shine.
I haven’t always had this kind of support. I’ve taught at other high-need schools where the collective task of meeting students’ needs felt imbalanced. I recall being asked to translate school documents, teacher-parent phone conversations, and in-person meetings all on top of my classroom responsibilities because I was one of the very few staff members fluent in Spanish. At first I thought this would be a once-in-a-blue-moon request, but it wasn’t long before I found myself being regularly asked (read: told) to put down whatever I was doing to translate. Not only did this affect my ability to carry out other aspects of my job, such as lesson planning, grading, and even teaching, but I also had less time and energy to attend professional learning courses and pursue other leadership opportunities, thus furthering my own development.
Translating in and of itself didn’t bother me; I actually enjoyed communicating with parents and families and filling a need my school had. It was the disregard for how these additional responsibilities affected me that made me feel undervalued. I felt taken advantage of, as if my time was less valuable than that of others. I was doing the work of someone else on top of my own, and I was not put in the position to bring others alongside me. In the end, I left this school in favor of a nearby school that offered me more time and support for my classroom responsibilities.
My experience is not unique. Many teachers of color, as The Education Trust and Teach Plus show in their just-released report, feel undervalued because they take on more than their fair share of responsibility but are not recognized or compensated for the work that they do.
It’s neither realistic nor necessary for every school staff to perfectly match the linguistic or racial makeup of their student population; however, it is the responsibility of school administrators to make sure teachers of color feel seen, heard, and celebrated, rather than overworked, burdened, or tokenized. Administrators need to be aware that the work they delegate could actually burden teachers of color. They should instead create schools that empower and invest in teachers, create pathways to leadership, informal and formal opportunities for mentorship, and freedom to tailor their instruction to the students in the classroom just like my school is doing for me and my colleagues.
A group of my fellow Teach Plus teacher leaders have been working to build off this research with partners in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Together, teachers and district leaders determined that if administrators are provided with the tools to foster a strong, culturally-affirming school culture that acknowledges the humanity and racial identity of teachers, then teachers of color will be more likely to stay in the classroom and be empowered to advocate for diverse learners. To that end, the LAUSD Professional Learning and Leadership Development department continues to work with educators to refine the curriculum of its Aspiring Principals Program to ensure that future school leaders recognize that establishing culturally-affirming school environments is a priority.
It should be the goal of every school to work towards distributing responsibilities so that all stakeholders have an equitable role in impacting student achievement.
Daniel Helena teaches 6th grade English at Kory Hunter Middle School in Los Angeles’s Florence-Firestone neighborhood. He is a Teach Plus California Policy Fellowship alum.