COMMENTARY | According to ABC News, America’s K-12 teachers are nowhere near as diverse as its students, with only one-fifth of teachers being nonwhite despite the rapid increase in minority student populations. As a result, the National Education Agency wants to find more ways to attract minorities to the field of teaching. I agree that the lack of minority teachers in K-12 public schools is an important societal issue that allows a harmful achievement gap to persist.
Part of the issue is the complex, controversial role of culture in influencing student achievement. Compared to whites and Asian-Americans, who are usually the top academic performers, many minority groups may perceive academic achievement to be of less importance for lifetime success. While the roots of any alleged cultural disparities in pursuing academic achievement may be hard to quantify, it is undoubted that a lack of minority teachers is not helping change these harmful cultural disparities. Students who rarely, if ever, see a teacher from their own racial, religious, or cultural group may begin to feel that academic success is not for them.
The notion that academic achievement is for “others” becomes entrenched.
If you only see white women teaching, you begin to feel that academic success is primarily for white girls. At its worst, school could come to feel discriminatory, with all punishments and rewards constantly meted out by only one subgroup in society. Students being able to see all races, religions, and genders represented among the ranks of school faculty and staff will be less able to justify a lack of performance based on the belief that school is inherently racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory.
Secondly, and perhaps just as importantly, education should be a community effort. Having more teachers among different minority communities could help both parents and students feel more connected to the task and nature of teaching. Some of the existing academic achievement gaps could be due to the profession of teaching being relatively unfamiliar to many minority communities. Parents and students in these communities may feel less rapport with teachers because they know few teachers personally.
Being more familiar and knowledgeable about the expectations, struggles, and triumphs of teachers could help minority students feel more engaged in the classroom. Many white students, for example, may know teachers as neighbors and friends and acquaintances of parents and relatives, allowing them to feel closer to teaching and academia. Teachers are not “outsiders” to feel uncomfortable with.