What's the Plus?
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What's the Plus?

Not Leaving Anyone Behind: Transforming School Climate and Culture to Impact Students of Color

By Texas Policy Fellows and Alumni

In the past several years, the demographics of U.S. society have changed drastically. In 2014, the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms surpassed the number of White students for the first time. As the education landscape continues to progress toward serving a more diverse student body, district stakeholders need to be actively aware of the need to recruit and retain teachers of color. Effective teachers of color are able unlock the hidden academic potential of all their students, and especially students of color. Many students of color have limited access to successful, inspiring professionals who look like them and for many, teachers are the only positive role models to whom they can look up. Teachers of color from all over Texas are united in one vision, urging districts to recruit and retain teachers of color. These are some of their stories:

My name is Taja Butler and I am a 9th-10th grade teacher at C E King High School in Houston, Texas. Growing up, there were no educators who looked like me. For many years, I believed that Black people just didn’t go to college. Far too many African American students don’t come into daily contact with college-educated adults who look like them. This can make students feel isolated from their educators and their academic work. Students who have teachers they can identify with racially and can look up to as role models are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to attend college. It is also important for White students to see educators of all races in the classroom, if we are to cease the perpetuation of stereotypes that many students can have about other races. White students need to see that they are not so different from their Black teachers and peers.

The report “If you Listen, We Will Stay” proposes providing mentors for teachers of color to help them navigate the many responsibilities of an educator. I believe such mentors should be teachers from the same racial background. The mentors should reflect the teachers’ racial demographic, have several years of experience, and be properly compensated. Mentoring provides educators with untapped and valuable resources to successfully educate students.

Teachers of color who are mentored by other effective teachers of color will have a greater sense of confidence and support in their classroom. Teachers of color with mentors will be supported when it comes to connecting to their students and schoolwide community as they navigate the tough work of inspiring societal change among their students. In today’s society, we cannot just teach our students the core subjects, we must teach them how to become critical thinkers and tolerant citizens in society. Mentored teachers of color have the will have an increased ability to bring in different perspectives, experiences, and skills to foster future agents of change.

My name is Cristina Correa and I teach 9th-12th grade Pre-AP & AP studio art and art history at IDEA College Preparatory. It took a long time for me to realize that I am a woman… a mujer… of privilege. Being a fair-skinned, freckled tejana has meant that I’ve experienced less discrimination relative to my darker-skinned sisters, friends, and colleagues along the border. My privilege also derives from the fact that I’m an educated, financially independent tejana.

Despite the fact that we are growing in number exponentially, most of my high school students are unaccustomed to seeing a Latina woman, born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, navigating her own success. Local female identity is still largely driven by a woman’s relation to a man, and as a product of our border culture. It took many years for me to realize that marital status, number of children, or fiscal dependency did not determine my worth, contribution to society, or ability to lead a happy and fulfilling life.

To some outsiders, my words may seem unremarkable thus far, and I get it: messages of female empowerment are everywhere… Except when they’re everywhere else. My culture, my students’ culture is steeped in communal values: family first, everyone pitches in, my problem is your problem. As a result, I have witnessed countless bright, optimistic, and focused former students give up on their educational dreams to take care of parents or younger siblings, provide financial support for their entire family, or help family members in trouble.

To some outsiders, it may seem like our young mujeres don’t have the grit, know-how, or means to attain a rigorous education. They can absolutely achieve college and life success while honoring our communal values. I have the cultural insight to help empower my young tejana students to advocate for themselves, their futures, their families, and their families’ futures. As a tejana master teacher, I have the educational insight to help my non-native colleagues understand the intricacies of our border culture so that they too can become messengers of tejana empowerment.

My name is Rikii Gipson; I am a 4th grade ELAR Master teacher at Pershing Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas. I am originally from Hattiesburg, Mississippi and grew up in a high poverty area. Throughout my life, I have been influenced by strong, compassionate African American educators, including my grandmother, who taught me how to look beyond appearances and teach the student.

When I teach, I teach the whole child and I try to make a lasting impression every day. At the same time, I believe that the lack of teachers of color has an impact on the overall culture of campuses as well as the development of students of color. Students need to see diversity among their peers and the teachers in their lives. Not only does this diversity encourage students to embrace differences, but it breaks down the stereotypes that have been forced on them by society.

I often hear people say, “I don’t see color,” but it is important to see color and recognize diversity. Schools and school districts must create a culture that acknowledges and celebrates our differences. We also need to have professional development sessions geared towards creating an environment where teachers of color are celebrated and retained.

My school is incredibly diverse. According to the Texas Education Agency 2018–2019 School Report Card, John J. Pershing Elementary School has a population of 15.0% African American, 77.7% Hispanic, 4.5% Asian, and 31.8% English Learners. As I look for ways to support our school’s diverse population, I realize that I depend on other teachers of color to discuss important topics that have lasting effects. We meet weekly after school to discuss issues and create ways to make improvements. Recently, we discussed how we can empower each other with daily motivations, either verbally or through a text message. With this, we can give each other positive affirmations, thus improving the working environment.

Working at a school with such diversity allows me to learn the differences between different cultures and backgrounds. As we create a learning environment that embraces all students, learning is our number one priority.

My name is Travon Jefferson and I teach 6th grade social studies at Yes Prep Hobby in Houston, Texas. I became a teacher because I believe students of color deserve an education that gives them academic knowledge, but also can help them become social advocates for themselves and others. Teachers are needed to teach math, science, social studies, and English language arts, but effective teachers of color also have the additional task of teaching students how to become critical thinkers through the lessons they teach. Teaching students how to examine the world around them is a very challenging process because a teacher must navigate through sensitive key issues facing America, such as race/racism, immigration, gender rights, police violence, government, etc. Teachers of color, especially Black male educators have a unique perspective on these topics and can bring in an added layer of understanding that other teachers cannot.

As a Black male educator, I can answer Angel’s question, “In the early 1900’s, why did white people hate Black people so much?” as we talk about examples of freedom to assemble. Without Black teachers, questions that lead to a child’s positive understanding of our racial history might go unanswered. I was able to effectively connect my student’s critical question about a key issue in America with knowledge and his ability to come to his own conclusions. As a Black male teacher, I can effectively navigate a question about race without a “colorblind” or privileged mentality and help my students understand cultures beyond White mainstream curriculum. I used the question to educate my students about the Civil Rights movement and the many activists who have fought injustices throughout history. I showed my students the faces of the many activists from different demographics, including Black, Hispanic, White, and Asian, so they could understand that people of all racial backgrounds and cultures support one another and that anyone can start a movement fighting for justice.

After this lesson, Angel gave me a hand-written letter that said, “I love being in your class, where I definitely will always know I’ll be protected and cared for and to be honest, you somehow made the world a better place for me, thank you.” I knew I had helped a student understand the world a little better, and taught him that everyone, not just famous activists, can fight injustices. The report by Teach Plus and Education Trust, “If You Listen, We Will Stay,” recommends that principals create schools where they empower and invest in teachers, by providing the freedom to tailor teaching to the population of students in the classroom. I was able to tailor my instruction to my student’s question that increased his understanding for the material but also the world around him. In order for teachers of color to do the incredible work of making the world a better place for all students of color, we must invest and empower them to tailor their instruction to best fit their students’ needs and understanding.

My name is Hjamil A. Martínez-Vázquez; I am a 4th-5th grade bilingual teacher at ACE Demonstration and Design Lab at J.A. Hargrave in Crowley, Texas. For the past several years, I have used the book Esperanza Rising as a core reading with my students. Recently, after finishing the chapter in which Esperanza gets to the United States by train, Noelia raised her hand and said, “Por lo menos ellos vinieron en tren.” (At least they came on a train.) She went on to narrate the story about how she came to this country, walking with siblings. As gut-wrenching as her story was, it was also eye-opening and instructional for most of my other students who have not experienced that journey.

After class, I sat down with Noelia and thanked her for her courage. With tears in her eyes, she confided in me that this was the first time she has told her story aloud. She has never been in a bilingual classroom before nor had a Latina/o teacher, so she did not feel connected to her previous classrooms or teachers. She said that she knew I was going to understand. Noelia was grateful for being able to tell her story: “Ahora, puedo ser yo por que no tengo ese secreto.” (Now, I can be me because I do not carry that secret.) She was able to find a space in which she saw images of herself, in a community of belonging rooted in our language and cultures, a familia.

In order for Noelia and many students of color not to be left behind, we need to address the processes by which districts and schools recruit and retain teachers of color. The inclusion of our voices is important for the construction of systems that relate to students as human beings and celebrate their unique identities and differences through curriculum, teaching practices, and empathy with/for our students’ experience. District administrators and principals need to create environments rooted in respect and equity that celebrate Noelia’s and all students’ voices.

My name is Aletha Williams and I am a 10th grade teacher at Mayde Creek High School in Houston, Texas. My passion for science is the reason I became a teacher. Growing up, I didn’t have any science teachers who looked like me. I always enjoyed being in science classes but was often told that I would not go far in the field. I had to fight so that I could take the higher-level classes. It was hard to sit in my classes and not see other students like me. As a teacher of color, I have students tell me that they would have never thought about a career in science until they saw my passion for it in the classroom. My students have become science teachers, doctors, nurses, and researchers.

Students who have a teacher of color can connect with that teacher culturally and look up to them as a role model. Many students of color do not have contact with a person who has graduated with an advanced degree; seeing a teacher of color in the classroom pushes them to do better in school. These students no longer feel isolated when they have a connection with a teacher. A teacher of color is the driving force that supports students of color to seek higher learning.

The Teach Plus/Education Trust report “If You Listen, We Will Stay” recommends that schools invest in culturally relevant pedagogy for the teachers on the campus to help understand the students of color in the classrooms. Districts also need to ensure that teachers of color have access to leadership positions within their schools so that they can stay on the campus. We must retain teachers of color in our schools to help students of color and all students be successful.

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