Recently, a close friend sent me a news article about our childhood neighbor and elementary school classmate who was set to be arraigned on significant drug-trafficking crimes in our city. While my friend and I had gone on to earn advanced degrees and certificates, our classmate had succumbed to the pressures of the environments we had grown up in.
This happens all the time. I hear from a friend, a classmate or my sister about the devastating trajectories of our peers, children I shared meals, toys, games and laughed with: They’ve been arrested, given life sentences in prison or murdered.
So when my students ask me why I decided to become an educator, I tell them that the decision was—and remains—deeply personal to who I am and where I’m from. In a society that constantly reminds me, my students and those who care to pay attention that black and brown bodies are disposable, the only way I can grapple with it all is through teaching and by encouraging teachers to educate in a way that truly matters. Ultimately, I decided to teach so that my communities—and all communities—will thrive, be whole, be rooted in justice and love. So that we, especially black people, will live and count it all joy to do so. Because I come from the same world as the students in my urban school, I know what they need.
As a black teacher from a low-income family in Columbus, Ohio, I had so much in common with my students. They were more likely than not to have experienced the killing of a classmate or family member or have an incarcerated sibling. Like me, they probably would have to navigate applying for college without much assistance from family members. I understood the types of texts my students liked to read and how to engage them in critical conversations. I realized the significance of teaching my students to identify social injustices and to advocate for themselves—because I’ve had to do that myself.
We should be respected and cherished for what we bring to the table. Instead, the opposite is too often the case.
But after years of doing this critical and invaluable work, I left. And I’m not alone.
Decades of research show that students of all races and ethnicities benefit from having teachers of color. They report overall better school experiences and more favorable impressions of their teachers of color. Yet, 80 percent of U.S. teachers are white. And, as James Paterson notes in “Closing the Diversity Gap,” our country’s teacher shortage “tends to disproportionately affect communities of color.” And this disproportionate effect includes retaining teachers of color.
Teachers of color end up leaving the profession for a number of reasons: being silenced, being a minority among colleagues, lack of upward mobility and opportunities to grow, feeling powerless, being left out of conversations about legislation and policy. For me, these issues really took their toll. I couldn’t keep watching students become consumed by a system that does not care for them. I couldn't keep witnessing white staff and others who did not share my students' backgrounds act as saviors for their own benefit.
Lived experience cannot be refuted, and it cannot be explained. So when teachers of color are skipped over for promotions, excluded from conversations around school culture or kept from sharing their insights about what students of color need to succeed, it is insulting. As was the case with me, it pushes too many of us out of the classroom.
Many teachers of color are driven to the work because of our own lived experiences and commitment to serve our communities, and it is a travesty that so many factors work together to keep us from staying there. Teachers and leaders of color, particularly those of us who share the same backgrounds with students, are the most critical personnel in urban schools. We should be respected and cherished for what we bring to the table. Instead, the opposite is too often the case.
We can’t collectively decry the lack of teachers of color without addressing the school cultures that silence, demonize and push them out. Schools seeking to do what is best not only for students of color but all students must be willing to do better by teachers of color.
For School Administrators
Ask these questions developed by Dandridge Floyd to build a community that values diversity and works to support it.
What constitutes diversity?
Consider a multitude of identities, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, ability, gender, sexual orientation and veteran status.
How does our current culture support diversity and inclusion?
Will new hires be welcomed into a space that's accessible to all and respectful of difference?
How will building a more diverse team benefit our students and community?
Studies show the value of a diverse educational workforce. Review these studies together and discuss practical ways that a commitment to diversity will directly benefit your district and students.
Pitts is the dean of students at a charter school in Harlem, as well as the founder of Ms.PittsConsults, which focuses on providing anti-racist, culturally responsive and social justice education workshops for educators.