We Need a Diverse and Sustainable Teaching Force in California
By Manuel Rustin
On the last day of the school year, Steve, one of several Black sophomores in my class, wrote me a farewell message. It read: “U probably been one of the best teachers I’ve had & plus U are an African American graduate from Harvard. Now I have bragging rights to say I have been fully taught by an African American college graduate from Harvard.”
I had not considered that a student might brag about having me as their teacher, but Steve wrote what many Black kids across the nation are thinking when they have a Black teacher directing their learning with love, talent, and precision. According to the National Teacher and Principal Survey, just 1.3% of public school teachers were Black men in the 2020–21 school year. Steve recognized that he had the rare privilege of having one. However, having teachers of color in the classroom isn’t just about students of color.
For Gary, a white student in my class, having a Black teacher meant bringing balance to his developing views of race in America. Gary didn’t have many friends at school and spent most of his weekends hunting and driving ATVs with his politically conservative family. It’s possible that he didn’t interact with many Black people outside of me, his favorite teacher. Our hours of conversation during lunch breaks and between class periods offered him a way to interrupt the traditional anti-Black narratives presented across our media and political landscapes.
Both Steve and Gary won the Black teacher lottery — the random and rare opportunity to have a Black teacher during their K-12 journey. It’s an opportunity that I and too many other Californians never had. According to the Teach Plus report, It’s Time to Be Bold & Diversify Our Teaching Force, 56% of kids in California schools are students of color, while 61% of public school teachers identify as non-Hispanic white.
Students aren’t the only ones missing out. Teachers of color themselves benefit from having other teachers of color at their school sites. At a pivotal moment in my career when I was on the brink of leaving the classroom, it was the mentorship of two veteran teachers of color that helped keep me in the profession. A report co-authored by the Education Trust and Teach Plus, If You Listen, We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover, documents the importance of creating mentorship opportunities and connections between teachers of color. Such support helped sustain me in the profession and serves as a reminder that simply recruiting teachers of color isn’t enough — supports must be in place to retain them.
We now have an opportunity to determine exactly what these supports should look like. On April 10, educators, researchers, systems leaders, and policymakers will gather in Sacramento for a summit called “Building Bridges: Setting the Vision for Sustaining BIPOC Educators in California.” With teachers like me in the room, the summit is an opportunity for policymakers to learn about real-life experiences of students and educators, develop a shared understanding of the root causes of why teachers of color enter, stay, and leave the profession, and co-create a road map for building and supporting a diverse and sustainable teacher workforce in our state.
Our ultimate goal must be to ensure that every student has an exceptional teacher in the classroom to guide their learning, and that these teachers together reflect the diversity of our state. Although an abundance of existing state policy aims at making sure our classroom teachers are well-prepared, more needs to be done to address our goal of diversity and promote a robust, sustainable teaching force that mirrors the many languages, cultures, and backgrounds of our students.
Our state must take responsibility for the future of the teaching force. Local and state legislative efforts have recognized the importance of other public servants, yet support for teachers seems to be lacking. I hope that the summit will act as a galvanizing force for championing the value of the teaching profession and taking steps to ensure that current and future teachers are valued and supported as they engage in the essential work of teaching our young, burgeoning Californians.
I’ve taught hundreds of students like Steve and Gary. I’m still a rarity though, often hearing students say I’m the only Black male teacher they’ve had. Generations of California’s kids are still awaiting their chance at having a teacher of color. Among them, also, are an untold number of teachers-in-waiting, if only we’re serious enough to welcome them into the profession. Let’s make sure we do everything we can to support a sustainable, ethnoracially and linguistically diverse educator workforce.
Dr. Manuel Rustin is a high school social science teacher at John Muir High School Early College Magnet in Pasadena, California. Dr. Rustin is vice chair of the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission and a member of EdTust-West’s Educator Advisory Council. He is 2023–24 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.