February 26, 2018

Why I Want Teachers of Color for Minnesota Kids & What I’m Doing About It

By Melissa Schoenberg

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the importance of representation. Between the film “Black Panther,” and celebrations of Black History Month, people seem to be paying more attention to the importance of seeing oneself reflected in curriculum, in movies, and elsewhere. As a parent of color, I hope this attention leads to real meaningful change, especially in an area where we know children benefit from seeing themselves represented: schools. If we want our kids to know they can truly become anything, we need their teachers—some of their first and most important role models—to reflect and affirm who they are. To increase teacher diversity, it’s on us, parents and citizens, to call on our political parties and elected officials to make this issue the urgent priority many of us know it to be.

THE IMPACT OF NOT HAVING TEACHERS OF COLOR

I am biracial, both white and east Indian. My parents were not rich but did everything they could to make sure my brother and I experienced living in other countries. I have had the privilege of learning from and alongside people from many different cultures in public schools in Vieux Fort, St. Lucia, Hoechst, Germany, Chandigarh, India, and Bangalore, India. When my parents divorced, we moved back to the United States, to a small town in southern Minnesota where I went to public school.

There were no teachers of color and only three kids of color in the school, including my brother and me. As a student, I dealt with ridiculous questions and comments that I chalked up to ignorance. Does your family own a gas station? Do you really eat spiders and monkey brains like in Indiana Jones? Is your dad a terrorist? Then there were also the kids who would shout “Sand N****r” or “Camel Jockey.” This was harder to deal with.

Since then, and especially since I’ve started mentally preparing for my oldest child to start school, I’ve wondered why my teachers didn’t do anything to stand up for us. They weren’t particularly bad teachers; they knew their subjects well and they worked hard. I’m sure, on some level, they knew that what was happening to us wasn’t okay. But, without ever having experienced that kind of oppression themselves, they couldn’t get just how not okay it was. Or maybe they knew, but didn’t know how to get involved in a helpful, effective way.

OUR KIDS DESERVE BETTER

I always hoped and assumed that things would be better for my two children. That they’d learn from teachers of all backgrounds, as I did before I moved to Minnesota; teachers who, because of their own experiences, would know when, why, and how to stand up for their classmates of color, and who would model for my own kids the type of allies I want them to be. But when I look at the numbers, I feel angry and afraid: Teachers of color represent only four percent of teachers in Minnesota, despite children of color making up 30 percent of our students.

I refuse to accept this. Beyond the immeasurable benefits that they bring, teachers of color also have a very tangible impact on academic achievement for children of color, on everything from gifted program placement to high school completion. When teachers of color run a classroom, students of color see a decrease in disciplinary referrals and report feeling more cared for and interested in their homework. What’s more, all students actually may prefer having teachers of color.

My children will have teachers of color. They will have teachers from diverse backgrounds who enrich their own education, and who set their classmates of color on a path to become the teachers, leaders, and superheroes they can be.

I’M JUST GETTING STARTED

So, I decided to do something. Ahead of last month’s precinct caucuses, I wanted to influence my political party to advocate for the diverse teachers all children deserve. With the guidance of Nekima Levy-Pounds, I wrote and advanced a resolution to increase teacher diversity, which I personally sent to 2500 school superintendents, board members, and principals across Minnesota. The following resolution—which garnered amazing encouragement from both white people and people of color in both rural and urban communities—passed in many precinct caucuses across three congressional districts:

I move the party to acknowledge that teachers of color are a statewide shortage area and the party must support any policies that will help schools recruit and retain teachers of color.

Next up: The state convention, where I hope to get this resolution into the party platform. But whether the resolution passes or not (and please let me know if you can help make sure that it does!), I won’t stop fighting for the diverse teaching core our children deserve, and frankly, need.

Whether you’re white or a person of color, a Democrat or a Republican, a Twin Cities resident or a resident of Greater Minnesota, this issue should matter to you. The research on the benefits of teacher diversity is staggering, and the numbers in Minnesota are simply unacceptable. We need more than just resolutions and party platforms to change things: We need action. From creating more pathways into the teaching profession to making sure schools can retain their teachers of color, there are policies our leaders, no matter their party and no matter what their official party platform may be, can advance.

It’s on us to make sure that they do.