Cepeda column: Why having a diverse teaching corps matters
CHICAGO — When it comes to diversifying America’s teaching corps to better reflect the increasing number of Hispanic students, there’s a big question: If Latino public school students rarely see a Hispanic teacher, how will they ever come to see teaching as an attractive profession?
It’s not a trivial concern.
While there’s no specific research data showing that Hispanic students receive an outsized benefit from having teachers with the same background, there are studies that confirm a positive link between teachers of color and the academic achievement of all students.
And a recent study found that low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and consider attending college.
But while the benefits to an increasingly diverse student body are easily imaginable, one aspect about recruiting more teachers of color is rarely spoken about: How challenging it is to actually be a Hispanic teacher in a teaching corps that is overwhelmingly white (only 8 percent of teachers are Hispanic).
For starters, becoming a teacher is expensive.
Not only do you need to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, but, depending on your state, there are a battery of general and content-area tests to take, each of them costing a nice chunk of change. The capstone test — called the edTPA and now the standard for certification in 16 states and growing — requires a high quality video-taking device, video editing skills and super fast internet access to create and upload an extensive submission.
This is in addition to 15 to 20 weeks of unpaid mandatory student teaching during which you’d have to be crazy to try to work elsewhere — if your university even allowed it — regardless of how dearly you needed the income.
And, as if that weren’t enough of a mountain to climb, for those altruistic souls devoted to teaching in low-income schools where the majority of students are black or Hispanic and the pay is likely to be low, the Trump administration is threatening to end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which helps teachers who take on these extra difficult teaching assignments.
Then there is the actual experience of being a teacher in a school where there are few or no other teachers of color — it’s not always a walk in the park.
I’ve been blessed to teach in schools chock full of absolutely caring, devoted, selfless and hard-working teachers and administrators who would do practically anything to ensure the academic success of all their students.
But even in such environments of pulling out all the stops to make sure all kids progressed, there were still obvious ways in which white students were seen as academically ready to thrive while black and Hispanic students were considered lesser — too poor, too devoid of resources at home, too far behind peers or otherwise too downtrodden to succeed.
At best, some of these students of color were given extra resources and attention by adults, though sometimes these efforts were tinged with pity. At worst, some kids — even as young as first grade — were simply written off as unsalvageable.
Throughout my years in education I’ve been present at meetings where such students were referred to as stupid or hopeless. Their parents were savaged as being clueless, unhinged or having been purchased by a spouse as a mail-order bride from a foreign country. In one case, my presence was not enough to hold the tongue of a teacher who suggested that a male Hispanic student’s career trajectory would peak with becoming a janitor.
This behavior, however, pales in comparison to the impact minority teachers can make. It may sound trite, but there is relief and even pure joy when minority students experience having a teacher who shares their culture.
A more diverse teacher corps is not a panacea — the single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher regardless of race or ethnicity.
But if more Hispanic college students can be recruited into teaching through a variety of supports and incentives, the way in which struggling students are perceived in schools can slowly begin to change.
Teaching is not easy or particularly lucrative, relative to other highly skilled professions. But walking into a classroom and being a living, breathing example of all the possibilities that a good education can open up offers its own rewards.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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