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Have you ever looked at a school staff as a parent or teacher and wondered, “Why are there so many white teachers?” It’s a valid question, one that my college courses only touched on briefly and that I don’t think we as a profession talk about enough. This post is going to cover some of the reasons for the racial disparity in teaching as a profession and why it’s a pressing problem we need to address as a nation.
I know I typically don’t talk about race because this is a blog devoted to special education, but it’s a topic I think we as a nation need to grapple with.
Did you know the majority of public school teachers are white? Even in schools where the majority of students are black or Hispanic.
According to a survey done in the 2017-2018 school year, nearly 80% of public school teachers identify as caucasian.
To double-check my facts, click here.
In a seminar, I was once in that focused on inclusive teaching practices, especially race, the presenter made a point of talking about how we need to focus on problems we can solve, and he focused mainly on helping us think of ways to teach students of color.
A very valid thing to do in a seminar, but I want to take a second to focus on the macro reasons that there are so few teachers of color. Even if we can’t solve the macro problem, it’s important to talk about it.
This job should be open to everyone for the sake of both teachers and students. Teaching is considered a safe and stable job, and while it might not pay as much as we all know it should, you get good benefits and consistent hours while also getting to be part of a union. And research is clear that students of color have better outcomes when their teachers look more like them.
Keep reading to learn more!
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What is a Racial Disparity?
Racial disparity refers to a difference in treatment between racial groups. If a group of people of the same race consistently have a harder time acquiring the same level of income, quality of housing, and social services, then that’s evidence of a racial disparity.
It doesn’t take much to see that we have a racial disparity problem in this country.
Statistically speaking, Black or Hispanic people are more likely to belong to a lower socio-economic group than their white counterparts.
But beyond numbers, you can often see the evidence of racial disparities just in your day-to-day life. Just look at housing.
If there is a neighborhood in a city that is mostly black or suburbs that are mostly white, that’s visual evidence of racial disparity.
Evidence of racial disparities is often evident in teaching as well. When I was working as a student teacher and a SEIT, I had to go into multiple classrooms, schools, and different learning environments.
Just eyeballing the staff, you see clear evidence of racial disparities. In the environments I’ve seen, the majority of students are people of color, while most of the staff is white. I’ve never set foot in a school with a majority of teachers of color.
So why are there so many white teachers?
There is no one individual or cause of racial disparity in teaching. There are numerous systemic problems that all combine to create an environment that makes it harder for people of color to become educators.
Let’s look at New York State, for example, which is a very diverse and fairly liberal state.
Teachers in New York are required to get a Bachelors in order to get a temporary license that is good for five years. If you want to keep teaching after that, you need a Masters.
College is freaking expensive, and students of color are more likely to have grown up in poverty in this country. That makes paying for college difficult or impossible.
But then, after going to college and doing all the work and financial finagling to pay for it, there’s another obstacle for teachers: Certification tests and their costs.
In New York, I’m certified in general education and special education. I had to submit a portfolio assessment called edTPA and take multiple certification tests to get both those licenses.
The cost of those tests was roughly $1,000, and the university would not cover them. Plus, if you fail, you have to pay the fee all over again when you retake it.
Having a grand to spare for certification tests when you’re a full-time student is a stretch. I was lucky enough to have my parents pay for it, but what about all the people who don’t have that kind of money?
I’ve met people who’ve had to take out loans to cover the cost of getting certified.
I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t have an education. But anyone looking to solve the problem of racial disparity in teaching is going to have to make both college and certification more affordable and accessible for everyone.
I’ll level with you for a second: I’m a curvy plus-sized woman. If I see a store and only see skinny people inside, I’m going to assume that store isn’t for me.
The same is probably true of a lot of people. If you don’t see anyone like you, you’re probably going to think that environment won’t be welcoming to you.
So what about our students of color who grew up with all white teachers?
They’re probably going to look at school teachers and staff and think that it’s not a place for them, making them less likely to consider becoming teachers themselves, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Negative School Experiences
Another big problem to contend with is that people of color are also more likely to have negative experiences at school.
Did you know that if a black girl and a white boy both engage in the same behavior, the black girl is more likely to be punished or reprimanded than the white boy?
Even after years of being aware of the school-to-prison pipeline there are still massive problems with students of color being disciplined more harshly than their white peers.
If I were constantly being yelled at or suspended from school, I wouldn’t want to go back to a place like that when I was grown up.
What can we do about it?
So, now that we’ve covered why there are so many white teachers, what can be done about it?
Well, as mentioned in that seminar I attended, these are systemic problems that are larger than any person. However, that doesn’t mean there are no options.
Start Scholarships or Voucher Programs
On the off chance that someone reading this is a person with large sums of money to throw around: you can always start a scholarship for students of color who study education.
If paying for that seems too intimidating or expensive, you can also consider creating a fund that pays for teacher certification exams for people of a lower socio-economic status.
I have no idea how to do any of this. I’m a teacher, which means I don’t get paid enough.
But this result from a google search I just did looks promising.
More realistically: If you’re a person of color and your child goes to a school with mostly white teachers, volunteer. That way, your student and your peers can see a person who looks like them in the building, which can help improve their involvement.
Hopefully, your child’s teacher will reach out to you about opportunities to get involved, but if they don’t, reach out to see what they need.
Common Ways to get involved
- Go to PTA Meetings
- Run for PTA president if you’re really motivated
- Attend Volunteer Days
- Offer to read aloud your child’s favorite book to the class
- Give a presentation on something you’re an expert in
- Help organize an event or fundraiser for the school
- Offer translation services for conferences if applicable
Anything that gets you in the building will be incredibly helpful in this mostly white adult environment.
And if you’re a teacher reading this, find ways to get parents more involved and bring more people of color into the building. Bonus points if you can have them come in as an expert or presenter.
Watch how you discipline
For teachers and administrators, don’t leave discipline decisions up to in the moment discretions. Have a clear checklist for behavior that constitutes writing a child up, suspending them, or sending them to the office.
If there is an incident, ask yourself what you would have done if a white student did the same thing.
Long term, you are a part of how students of color are forming relationships to school. While that won’t solve the problem of racial disparity today, it might mean that in twenty years, more people of color will consider becoming teachers.
And if you’re a parent and concerned about your child being punished unfairly in school, be aware of their civil rights and know the signs of discrimination.
Wow. That was a long one. Hopefully, you have a better grasp of why there are so many white teachers.
This is a large problem that will require systemic change and long-term solutions. The more people become aware of the issues, the more pressure can be created to find a solution.
Make sure to share what you’ve learned with friends, family, and other people in the field, and if you’re an educator, make sure to join my email list to get access to my free resource library, which is full of great resources for teachers!