A diverse teaching staff can boost test scores and attendance for students of color. It can also be a matter of life or death.
[Editor’s Note: The following was contributed by the co-author of “Hu(e)man Capital: The Need For More Teachers of Color in North Carolina,” a new policy briefing from the Center for Racial Equity in Education examining the state’s longstanding shortfall of teachers of color.]
Miguel rushed into the classroom and looked at me with disbelief in his eyes.
“Man, it didn’t work. None of that stuff worked!” he told me.
It was Monday morning in my 11th grade Contemporary American Issues class, and we were only a week into our unit on the United States Constitution. The week before, I taught students about the Bill of Rights and its protections against self-incrimination and unreasonable search and seizure.
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“What didn’t work?” I asked, confused.
Miguel told me that he and some friends had been stopped by police officers while they were walking down the street over the weekend. When the police ordered them to empty their pockets and demanded to look in their backpacks, Miguel resisted and cited his Fourth Amendment rights.
The police told him to “shut the f*ck up” and continued their illegal search.
The incident weighed heavily on Miguel’s mind from the time it occurred until he arrived in my classroom to tell me that the Bill of Rights hadn’t worked for him.
I will never forget that moment for two reasons: The first reason is the look of betrayal in Miguel’s eyes. He, like most of my students, was confident that whatever I taught him in class was the truth. While it wasn’t a lie to tell him that the Bill of Rights offers important legal protections for American citizens, that was not the whole truth.
The second reason that moment is ingrained in my memory is my response to Miguel.
At the end of that day’s lesson, I took some time to debrief Miguel’s experiences with the class. I told my students that there was a giant asterisk on everything that we had learned about the Bill of Rights—that during any interaction with police, the only rights that they have are the ones that the officer is willing to grant them. I told them that surviving the encounter was the only way to have their day in court. I also told them that even if they made it to court, there was no guarantee that justice would prevail.
For my mostly Black and Latinx students, these things were every bit as true as what I had taught them about the Bill of Rights. Teaching students the latter without the former had placed one of them in a potentially deadly situation.
A few months after Miguel shared his story with me, 17-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
NC has plenty of Black and brown students. So where are the Black and brown teachers?
Teachers of color have a profound impact on students’ educational experiences, particularly students of color.
According to researchers, the benefits of students of color being taught by teachers of color are visible in school attendance, test scores, school discipline outcomes, graduation rates, and even college aspirations.
What doesn’t always show up in the data are moments like the one described above. The information that I shared with my students was not in the curriculum or the state standards. It was, however, a common experience for people of color—the moment when we realize that the America in which we live is very different from the idealized version we learned about in social studies class.
I decided to share that lesson with Miguel because I witnessed, as Dr. Martin Luther King noted, “ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form” in his mental sky.
I knew that the experience would cause him to question his self-worth if left unaddressed. While any teacher could have taught students about racial disparities in policing and the American legal system, it mattered that I was the one to do it because of my own racialized life experiences. It is one thing to share a fact that you have read, but it’s quite another to share a truth that you have lived.
Our new policy brief at the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED), Hu(e)man Capital: The Need for More Teachers of Color in North Carolina, describes the benefits of educator diversity and proposes several ways to increase the number of teachers of color in the state.
As shown in the brief, Black students make up more than 25% of public school enrollment but Black teachers are only 13% of the teaching workforce in North Carolina.
Underrepresentation is even more severe for Latinx students who are 17% of enrollment. Less than 3% of North Carolina’s teachers are Latinx.
The consequences of this mismatch appear in the form of decreased attendance, reduced End-of-Grade and End-of-Course test scores, and increased suspensions for students of color.
CREED’s policy brief proposes four actions that state policymakers could take to increase the supply of teachers of color in North Carolina.
The first recommendation is aimed at gathering more information on the experiences of teachers of color. The second encourages school districts to sustain work environments that support educators of color, and the last two recommendations are designed to empower North Carolina’s colleges and universities to produce the well-prepared, diverse teachers that our students need.
It’s not enough just to hire more teachers of color. Around the country, state legislatures and school boards are considering bills and policies that would ban certain history and ideas from the classroom.
In North Carolina, HB 324, would prohibit schools from acknowledging the existence of white supremacy, racism, and sexism.
Another proposed law would require teachers to post all lesson plans, instructional materials, a description of those materials, and a link to electronic copies of all materials to a public website. Under the guise of transparency, this legislation is designed to have a chilling effect on the decisions teachers make about what and how to teach.
HB 324, and laws like it, would have prevented me from teaching my students about the difficult realities of life in America for Black and Latinx people—leaving Miguel and so many others unprepared for the world in which we live.