Esther Cepeda: The many challenges of teaching
CHICAGO -- Students in public schools across the country are increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, yet their teachers are not, according to the Center for American Progress.
The liberal think tank estimates that students of color make up almost half of the public school population but teachers of color represent only 18 percent of the teaching profession.
This is an emotional and difficult subject to discuss.
Depending on how one couches the legitimate point that America’s teachers should reflect the diversity of our country’s students, it is inevitable that talking up this need runs the risk of sounding like a form of insulting discrimination—implying that white teachers cannot adequately teach minority children and that minority students can’t learn from white teachers.
As a bilingual high school teacher, I was given the task of bringing English-as-a-Second-Language students up to grade level in algebra, even though I did not possess a degree in mathematics. And while I understood their immigrant backgrounds and spoke their language, I was not the best person to teach children who in some cases had difficulty with simple arithmetic.
I couldn’t hold a candle to the any of the math department staff, and I leaned on them just enough to be able to prepare my students for their common departmental assessments. But I tried my heart out, which counted for something, at least.
The moral of my story is twofold: Study after study has found that low-income, minority and non-native English-speaking students are the likeliest public school students to get the least prepared teachers. And shared racial or ethnic background is not the most important aspect of a teacher’s abilities.
There are people—with, I believe, the best intentions—who think minority children cannot learn as well as they might with white teachers. And that if minority students don’t see someone of their race in a particular field of study, such as medicine, law, science or teaching, they won’t aspire to those careers.
This doesn’t hold water. There are black and Hispanic astronauts, Supreme Court justices, scientists and professors. Some of them were the “first,” relying on their self-determination, along with the interest and support of caring teachers, to blaze historic trails. They would not exist if it were true that empathy was dependent on demographics.
This is not to say we don’t need teachers of many different ethnic and racial backgrounds. We need these role models dearly—but not just so they can minister to the minority students who are struggling through poverty. The non-minority kids at the well-to-do schools in predominantly white neighborhoods need such teachers just as much, so that they can enter an extremely diverse and evolving workforce understanding that minorities are leaders, thinkers and mentors to be respected.
Many factors force minority teachers out of the profession, not least are low pay, social issues well beyond their control and high emotional anguish.
Unless you find a special program in which all college education is paid for in exchange for a fixed number of years as a teacher, it is very difficult for minorities—who are many times the first in their families to attend college—to stay in jobs with relatively low pay, high stress and often in communities so needy that even the most excellent teaching will barely make a dent in a student’s life.
If it seems that certain types of people tend to follow their need to “make the world a better place one student at a time,” look at their economic situations: Did they come from a families of college graduates who helped them navigate undergraduate studies? Did they have families who helped them pay for their teacher training? Do they have spouses whose income supplements their own?
By all means: Make teaching more lucrative so the very best scholars become teachers and are amply rewarded, and let us do whatever is necessary to make that pool diverse.
But let’s not make the mistake of doing it because of the misbelief that skin color or racial background is either a deterrent or a boost to the hard work of teaching or learning.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.