New York City’s Fractured Relationship With Teachers Of Color

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose, Race

I forgot to tell y’all something at last week’s teacher of color panel. Our system is simply not suited to support teachers of color.

In last week’s discussion with Linda Darling-Hammond, Bettye Perkins, Cliff Janey, and Richard Ingersoll at the Teaching and Learning Conference, we had a lively discussion on the shortage of teachers of color. My comments came out of left field because I’m sure some of the audience members wanted me to get more academic. Yet, after looking at the panel, I knew the work of the panelists there, all of whom have laudable pedigrees in their craft. My role was, as usual, to keep it real.:

When I say that institutional racism is a crucial factor in teacher shortage, it’s important to understand a few things:

  • High poverty schools in New York City already have staff diversity, with about half of all teachers in these schools coming from Black, Latino, Asian, and other backgrounds.
  • High poverty schools tend to get shut down, transformed, restructured, and taken over more frequently than low poverty schools every and anywhere in the country where this practice is common.
  • As the school poverty levels get lower, the levels of Black and Latino teachers decreases dramatically (Asian teachers level off at 5-6% throughout.)
  • Teachers of color have entered the profession at faster rates than their white peers.
  • Education is highly valued as a profession in communities of color. For example, African-American college students consider education as one of the highest-desired fields they’d get into post-college.
  • Teachers of color leave the profession at faster rates than their white peers.
  • According to Ingersoll and May’s work on this, teachers of color leave because they’re frustrated with administration [non-specific], with overtesting and accountability measures, and autonomy, not salary.

When I say, “it’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality,” I’m echoing an axiom that’s been shouted from the rooftops by so many educators of color. Many of us know what we’re getting into, but we see the inequities firsthand. We have different pathways by which we got in, either alternative certification programs like Teach for America and NYC Teaching Fellows or traditional routes like Bank Street College or Hunter College. We get recruited with plethora of images of heroism and “pay it forward” theatrics, which I fully understand. For many of us who sought to affect change in our schools, we’re immediately snapped out of our naiveté, staring directly at the outdated curricula, the flimsy laptops, and the antiquated infrastructure and think “It’s worse than I thought.”

Thus, we leave.

What’s more is that, when teachers of color seek schools that have equitable conditions, we won’t get hired in those places because they tend to be predominantly white institutions. Funny how this discussion of more teachers of color rubs some folks the wrong way, as if there’s an army of colored teachers coming to take seats from white teachers and stripping them of their jobs. In fact, white teachers in New York City seem to have more options, namely teaching in low-, medium, and high-poverty schools and central offices, and consultant jobs, and the intra-school non-profit industrial complex, and administration.

It’s easy for us to forget that some of my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk, and not every teacher of color ought to teach our child. That, too, goes across the board. We need to look at the color of every teacher’s conscious, for sure. It just so happens that the color of teachers’ skins can be a deterrent for society to find their character. Racism.

Anecdotally and personally, I can tell you the last 12 years of BloomKlein felt like an investment in corporate culture as well, and with that came many of the tropes that sought to fracture the relationships between veteran staff and new staff. More of the people who came to inspect schools and deliver the accountability framework happened to be young and white with a grey suit to boot. In Tweed-run meetings, people with only a couple of years of teaching experience felt comfortable with deriding veterans in high-poverty schools as doing things “the old way” and “doing a huge disservice to the kids.” This had a profound effect on teacher morale across the school system, but was particularly acute for veteran teachers of color, who were often the only adults left after years of turmoil at their schools.

We need to create equitable funding systems, professional development around cultural competence, and better systems for teacher voice and autonomy, things that don’t differ much from what all teachers want. The stakes are higher for people who tend to work in high-poverty schools, which just so happen to have more people of color across the board. Within schools, we need to find ways to have substantive, difficult conversations so everyone in the building can reflect on their practice and better serve students, and that includes discussions of race, diversity, power, and community relations.

Whenever we raise the bar for supporting a subset of educators, we help all teachers. Not a trickle down, but a gushing up.

But, if I’m looking at all these pieces in sum, I would think our system is inhospitable to teachers of color. Because, if you invite someone to your house and you underfeed them, berate them, and treat them unequally, why would you expect them to stay?

photo c/o