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Where Have All The Teachers of Color Gone? (With Answers)

Jose Vilson Jose 15 Comments

You should know that, at last week’s panel for the conference I attended, I went to a panel entitled “Where Have All The Teachers of Color Gone?” and never got our main question answered. Instead of coming for the moderator for not “doing the education,” I’ll ask you to consider a few things:

  • I’ve done some of the research for New York City, and similar patterns arise across the country.
  • Before we can even answer the “teachers of color” question, we have to differentiate what types of leaving we have.
  • Before that, we have to consider the mindset of the folks asking questions about it, and whether they’ve read any of the tangible research.

Even after the Albert Shanker Institute released their comprehensive report on the decline of teachers of color, mass media generally eschews thorough examinations and historical contexts of the question. The “teachers of color” issue is almost exactly like the teachers at large issue, but that difference, namely race, makes this all the more complicated. When integrationists won a hard-fought battle for school integration in 1954, folks across the country responded to it and the other numerous court-ordered integration orders by firing more than 38,000 black teachers and other education professionals en masse. When education reformers of present-day wanted to disrupt their education systems, they competed against each other in their shows of force by shutting down, breaking up, and privatizing schools with majority students of color.

Guess where teachers of color, not so coincidentally, tend to work?

All of this has precedent. It isn’t even that teachers of color have a preference towards teaching one set of kids over another per se. A part of it is that they want to teach students who come from their backgrounds. But they’re also not getting hired at schools that are predominantly white. That’s why they often have fewer options to stay in education than their white counterparts who, from my informal observations, seem to have more options within the school system.

This particularly stung in places like Washington, D.C., NYC, and Chicago where, after my own conversations and observations with countless teachers, reformers sought to bring a hammer to schools with majority students of color and bring in their own visions for what teachers looked like: white, young, and possibly conforming to a corporate ethos. Teach for America CEO should take responsibility for this as that was the premise of her domestic Peace Corps project. At the same time, former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and the handful of education officials who ran Chicago Public Schools for the last decade and change carried this out to fidelity, filling their central offices with lawyers and MBAs to talk to a teacher corp that started to look more and more like central offices.

How fitting.

Across the country, we also had faces of color telling other faces of color that this was the path to freedom and liberation. They used terms of “not all skinfolk are my kinfolk,” an axiom of grave consequence, to change the face of the failing teacher to a darker, older face. Even when the research shows that teachers of color are more likely to see children of color as potentially gifted, these folks couldn’t wait to fill in the conservative void and give cover for the folks plundering our schools. But the inborn capitalist in them asserts that, because they’re eating well, no one else can or must.

Thank you, Dr. Steve Perry and Democrats for Education Reform.

So, to answer the question, teachers of color are either dismissed or leave. They’re dismissed largely because their schools are more likely to get shut down due to the major reasons we see out there: standardized test scores, restructuring plans, and lack of parental voice and real choice. They leave due to the lack of autonomy in teaching in ways that would more readily impact students of color. Things like scripted lessons and curricula and silencing in common planning meetings contribute to the profession being stolen from right under them. These are issues that also affect white teachers who’ve decided to stay in the profession long enough to consider it a career. This is why solidarity matters, and why we all must advocate for teachers of color.

The rebuttal to this question reminds me of when basic folk say things like, “All lives matter” when activist assert that Black lives matter. My first question is usually, “Well, do you organize for all of us to have a well-compensated, respected profession that listens to students and the community, and can make sharp decisions about the students in their care? Or do you only care if you personally get what you want out of life?” If we can show solidarity for the folks most disempowered by our system, then the whole system benefits as a result. That’s not a rising tide lifting all boats. That’s us moving the whole freaking sea floor.

But I wouldn’t expect everyone to have done the research on it. Institutional racism thrives on people not actually reading up.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 15

  1. Joanna Best

    This is a subject I want to know more about and I’m glad you wrote about it. I think as a subject it needs to be part of the conversation, and not just in a way where folks say (and this is something I have heard said) “well public schools were just becoming a giant government works program for minorities.” The way integration was handled, particularly in terms of unbalanced work forces, helped get us to the point where the “failing schools” meme gave momentum for adverse action. I hope someone writes a book about it. The nuances of integration are a mystery to those of us born in the 70s.

  2. coolteach

    Another succinct and powerful commentary on a topic many would rather ignore. But then again, I’ve come to expect nothing less from you. Keep speaking truth. Hopefully people will begin to listen and we can move that sea floor.

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  3. Nicole Stevenson

    And I agree. I just lost my teaching job in NJ after teaching over 23 years of good evaluations. The district use some new evaluation system and allowed the principals or evaluators to lie on my evaluations. When I complained to the higher levels I was forced to retire. I am an older black teacher. It is obvious especially in urban public school districts the goal is to hire TFA teachers and get rid of black and older teachers.

  4. jd2718

    People speak of “unintended consequences” – how can this not be an INTENDED consequence?
    Along with gentrifying the northern cities (not just NYC) – big money here, and out of control testing – big money there, we have TfA ($), and making education in inner city neighborhoods a 3-year gig. Is there any way the authors did not know exactly who the career educators being displaced were going to be?

    Maybe you can point us to (or write) the story of the struggle to open up public education jobs to Black people….

    Jonathan

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      1. espi

        The culture of schools and districts has now favored the white majority once again because of the loss of union power (such as SB7 in Illinois). Young, white males who just entered the profession are given much more favorable evaluations over the long standing teachers of color. It is politics not only at the legislative level, but now politics is at the school level, where the majority of leaders are still white,

  5. Ms. Watson @eduwats

    I enjoyed reading this article as an educator from Philadelphia too experience this challenge. I would also like to bring up the question: Where are our Black Boys? In my observation charters, and private institutions are less likely to enroll black boys, leaving alternative for Black Boys in public schools with insufficient funding, cyber schools with lack of quality instruction, alternative settings with jail like mentalities and juvenile placements which sadly seem to be offering more programs and opportunities for our boys. I would like to know your thoughts.

  6. David Williams

    There is an old saying, follow the money. I have had over 30 years experience teaching in urban districts to small, very poor rural districts. If you keep churning staff with three year hires, you save significantly on labor costs. Yet, many of our districts are quite honestly, so poor that they really can’t afford career teachers even if such teachers were available. Equality in funding? Equality of opportunities for career teachers?

  7. Gretel

    “Even when the research shows that teachers of color are more likely to see children of color as potentially gifted” – That’s it. Right there. How can you convince a group of educators who are of the community, who see the children as their children to accept nothing but test prep? How can you criminalize teenage behavior and fill that school to prison pipeline with young black men if the young men’s teacher sees them as potentially gifted? New teachers who don’t feel a part of the community where they teach and who don’t have any skin in the game are easier to control. And the folks who want to ensure that school funding goes to wealthy white kids don’t want teachers of color advocating for students of color.

  8. Stephanie

    I agree with what you say about INTENDED consequences…as an educator of over 25 years in a high achieving school system…you have to know the ins and outs of the curriculum and what to do and what not to do when being evaluated…otherwise you can find yourself being a target who will be marked as an “ineffective teacher.“

    One of the concerns I have, not just as a minority educator but also just as an educator, is seeing the inconsistencies of how students with learning disabilities and gaps in their learning are being ‘helped’ to close in large school systems. Often, children are taken out of classes or given different workloads rather than being given strategies to complete the assignments given. This practice often sets the child and the instructor for failure. When the standardized tests are given and the child has to perform tasks that are not exactly in line with the instructions given…kids get frustrated and put any answer down to be done with the assessment. This most often reflects poorly on the child’s’ progress and poorly on the minority teacher who may have tried to help the child in the first place.

    And yes, it is about the money as well… Veteran teachers are constantly being asked to take early retirement packages so the system can “fine more money.” Experienced do not seem to matter as much as the bottom line…

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