As I previously wrote, I am the white woman I am today because of women of color. One of the primary reasons for this is that I was raised in countries and cultures that valued, honored and actively sought to put women of color in leadership positions, particularly in the church and in community organizations. As a young woman, I thought this was typical but as an adult I understand every place has a unique set of cultural values and norms. When I think about changing the culture of places that don’t value the voices of women, specifically women of color, I am reminded that cultures are dynamic. Although it feels easier said than done, cultures can change through the interactions of people, their ideas, their stories, and even through their conflicts.
While only 18% of teachers in the US are teachers of color, I maintain hope, that we are making some progress to include more diverse voices in teaching. In Washington state, our Professional Educator Standards boards is developing “Grow your Own” pathways. There are programs like The Martinez Foundation and Educators Rising who are mentoring young people of color into the teaching profession. On a micro-level, there are principals (like mine) who intentionally recruit teachers who reflect student demographics. At Lincoln, I’m lucky to work with a staff who is racially, linguistically, and culturally diverse. Not only do I learn from these teachers, but our students can see Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Black, Latino, and Pacific Islanders in positions of leadership and authority in our school.
All this to say, in 2017, it’s more important than ever that students of all races see more women of color in teaching.
I know. This isn’t a profound idea nor does this address the problem with the lack of men of color in education (I’ll post about that later!).
As both a solutions and action-oriented person, I realize that if I want to work with more women of color then I need to do something about it on systems and personal levels. I must support these women as much as possible. I am trying to do this through my leadership at Teachers United, my role as a mentor teacher, and my work with students.
On a systems level: Last year, I led a policy team for Teachers United that researched ways to support beginning educators. One of the primary ways to support beginning teachers of color (TOC) is to create a school culture that is inviting where TOCs feel welcomed and an integral part of the community. This means they are part of teaching and learning. This means seeing these teachers at instructional leaders, not disciplinarians. This means white teachers should work alongside and even step aside for TOCs to lead the work. Read the rest of our policy recs here. These recommendations are a starting point and need to be implemented by districts and schools everywhere. However, if I want them to be adopted elsewhere, then I had better be willing to apply them in my own school.
On a building level: This is where my role as an experienced teacher kicks in. My classroom is always open for a discussion about teaching. I intentionally support three local university teacher prep programs through classroom observations and have informally supported many pre-service teachers. However, in eleven years I’ve only taken on two student teachers. Because I am neurotic about teaching, judgy about who I spend countless hours co-planning with, fearful of screwing kids up, and certain that education is life and death for many of our young people, I want to make sure that I’m ready to give/receive from a student teacher. Increasingly over the last five years, I’ve felt compelled to be more actively support potential TOCs. If I want to see more teachers of color in the classroom, I need to use my classroom to cultivate that. That conviction coupled with the reality of having only so much energy (and the above neurosis), I’m more selective about who I take on as a student teacher. I think I’ve settled on two requirements for my future student teachers: they are students at The Evergreen State College or they are young women of color. Sure this makes me a snob and it’s not like I’m dismissing up and coming white women, but with every potential teacher candidate I think who do I want to work next to in two years? Who do my students need to see in front of them?
The long game: My other scheme to increasing the number of teachers of color, especially young women of color, is a three-pronged “inception” strategy. First, I keep an eye out for young women of color displaying those teacher skills like corralling an unruly table group or carefully and patiently explaining a concept to a partner. I strike up a nonchalant conversation to test the waters. “Have you ever thought about being a teacher because…” and then we talk about what she wants to do for a career. Stage two entails a shift from subtle hints to explicit statements. “You’d be a great teacher” I throw out there. “Wow, you seemed really comfortable explaining that to the class--you should be a teacher!” I exclaim. “You remind me of Professor X from the Xmen. His pedagogy was on point” (nah, I’ve never said that one). The final stage is constant badgering. This is for the student who isn’t even in my class anymore but whenever I see her in the hallway I make a move with comments:
“Have you figured out what class you’d teach?”
“Do you need a letter of recommendation?”
“What teacher prep program are you applying to next year?”
“Wouldn’t it be great to work together one day?”
I bug the student for the next three years of high school every time I walk by her in the hallway. Does it work? Eh, I have yet to see, but fingers crossedl (to be fair, this is a new strategy and two of my targets just graduated this year!).
This interchangeable white lady can’t do everything to fix the systemic barriers for recruiting women of color. But, I can try to inspire young women of color to be my future colleagues and eventually replace me completely (heeey, retirement, I see you).