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I grew up in the pre-Katrina New Orleans in the 1980s and 90s. The city was impoverished and crime-ridden, but it was home. The diverse cultures that permeated New Orleans, its friendliness and music, were potent enough to make it one of the most amazing places in the world to live. The big downside for a kid like me was the educational system, which had been ranked one of the lowest in the country for decades. The fact that I was able to navigate a failing school system and become a first-generation college graduate was nothing short of miraculous.

Or so it seemed to me until, as an educator, I conducted research on the significance of teachers of color for black students. I now recognize that my success is heavily attributed to the teachers of color who walked the halls of my primary and secondary schools. Yes, I had wonderful white teachers who loved me and supported me, but having teachers who looked like me enhanced my educational experience exponentially.

Shirley Dufour was my second-grade teacher and my first African-American teacher. She was a charismatic, nurturing and extremely knowledgeable educator who commanded the room. She taught us with firm love. She always dressed professionally and spoke so articulately, personifying excellence with every step she made and word she spoke.

I idolized Mrs. Dufour. She looked like me and was able to connect with me in a way my white teachers could not. She set the highest expectations for me and refused to let me settle academically or personally. Her unwavering commitment to the pursuit of excellence is what I wanted to mirror when I became a teacher.

Now, it is my professional purpose to exemplify for my students what Mrs. Dufour modeled for me. When I became a teacher in Dallas ISD in 2006, I knew that I wanted to work at an impoverished school so that I could be for those students what my teachers of color were for me. I always tell my students, “your address doesn’t dictate your success.” They believe that motto so much more when the person saying it looks like them.

In my classroom, my students gain an experience. They are empowered and feel accomplished every day regardless of their academic abilities, because I believe that this dissipates the achievement gap between black students and their peers. Whenever I can, I aim to validate the cultural needs of my students. I affirm the challenges of their environment as I steer them towards opportunities that can eradicate the blatant systemic oppression in their neighborhoods. My experiences as a student of color allow me to provide a unique perspective that only someone like me can give them, and it challenges them to think outside of the box to find solutions and enact change.

Research emphasizes that teachers of color matter for all students, and especially for students of color. It is imperative that we begin to change the narrative of America’s schools; this starts with recruiting, developing and supporting teachers of color so they remain in the classroom. In a just-released report, Teach Plus and The Education Trust lay out the reasons why teachers of color leave the profession. I can relate to many of these, and I know that we must be intentional about creating opportunities for teachers of color to operate with autonomy, authenticity and authority, so that we can address some of the issues that stifle the educational success of students of color across the country.

It is imperative that my students feel like they matter, and that they are accurately represented in their classrooms. I want them to see someone who looks like them, shares similar experiences and provides authentic anecdotes to overcome the challenges they experience. That magnitude of leverage begins with the intentional development and implementation of a pipeline of effective teachers of color.

This article was originally published on TribTalk, a publication of the Texas Tribune.

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