It has been refreshing to watch the NBC News special series Education Nation inspire a national discussion on teaching American children. Especially impressive has been hearing from the diversity of excellent educators — whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and so on — from across the country. But even as a wonderful national conversation unfolds, on some level everyone understand that any significant transformation for our children must happen at the state and local levels.
Recently, The Virginian-Pilot, the major newspaper in my area, ran a story about student-teacher racial imbalance in South Hampton Roads schools. The Sept. 17 headline, “Teacher-student racial imbalance widest in Va. Beach” honed in on that school district’s difficulty recruiting black teachers who could help increase black student achievement.
The article cited a 2004 study by Thomas Dee, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia, who found that white and black students in Tennessee tested better when they had teachers of their own race. Yes, diversity is very important but it’s not the main problem. The headline should’ve read, “Too many weak white teachers failing students.”
Whether white, black or other, excellent educators know how to teach ALL students regardless of their color. Overemphasizing diversity sends a message to weak white teachers that it’s okay to mis-educate students who don’t look like them. It lets these teachers — who are dishonoring the profession — off the hook.
Since the majority of teachers are white, this problem has, in part, been ruining generations of black and Hispanic students across the country. It almost claimed one of my children who attended high school in nearby Suffolk. During a parent-teacher’s conference, my wife and I endured a meeting with our daughter’s theater teacher that proved to be a turning point in our child’s education. She had approached the teacher for help to prepare to audition for the area’s Governor’s School for the Arts, which offers intense training to gifted students. Students attend their regular high school in the morning, then arts classes in the afternoon.
The weak teacher (who is white) gave my daughter (who is black) the cold shoulder. During the conference we asked the teacher about this. Displaying an air of annoyance, she told us that our daughter (who had been acting since age seven) had shown little to no talent. She said our daughter had no chance of getting in because the teacher’s “more talented” student (who was white) had auditioned previously and didn’t make it. In fact, no theater student from that high school had.
Recalling our own high school experiences with discouraging teachers and guidance counselors, my wife and I simply eyed each other instead of blowing gaskets. We knew who and what we were dealing with. We looked at our daughter, whose blank expression masked her fury and embarrassment. Our daughter knew it was time she stopped undermining herself and stepped up her game.
A few weeks later she successfully auditioned for the Governor’s School. Two years later she graduated (this past June) and is now away in college studying theater and psychology.
Strong teachers, whether they are white, black or other, inspire students. With hormones raging, middle and high-schoolers tend to respond negatively to teachers whom they sense don’t care. This happens too often with black and Hispanic students under white teachers who are weak or worse. Instead of saying, “I’ll prove you wrong,” like my daughter did, many of them act out (not doing homework, not studying, cutting classes, etc.), thinking that they are somehow getting back at the teacher. After it’s too late, these mis-educated students realize they’ve only hurt themselves.
Black, Hispanic, and low-income students of all races are being suffocated each year. It’s near hopeless if their parents are deadbeats or otherwise unable to actively engage. Unless the student has an internal drive to achieve and or has family support pushing him or her, one teacher, one authority figure, with one discouraging word, can strangle their will to succeed. Likewise, one teacher, one authority figure with an encouraging word can inspire a student toward greatness.
The article noted that Virginia Beach has had trouble finding black teachers — despite major HBCUs Hampton University and Norfolk State University being in its backyard. To provide some context, Virginia Beach has 440,000 residents with a 20 percent black population, but the city has never had a black mayor and just recently appointed its only African American on the city council. Sadly, the community can’t seem to shake a racist image linked to a clash between police and black college students at Greekfest in 1989. The incident drew unwanted national attention.
But Virginia Beach is not alone. Other districts are having trouble finding black teachers as well, as many black graduates are pursuing higher-paying careers. The promise of fatter paychecks is likely not the only reason for their disinterest. I suspect the bad experiences many of them had with teachers in middle and high school is also at the root. People often choose careers because someone inspired them. Why go into a field in which you had to overcome discouragement? Perhaps as black students have better experiences with strong teachers in middle and high school, more of them will aspire to teach after college.
Diversity can help, but it’s not the cure. There are also many black and Hispanic weak teachers who have low expectations of students who look like them. In the article, Professor Dee offered the solution: “We need teachers who are flat-out good and who we can train to be good for all students,” he said.