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#Isawmyself: Why Educator Representation Matters

By Elizabeth Tuten | Feb. 26, 2018

Every February, the conversation around racial representation in the media reignites. This year, the release of Marvel’s much anticipated Black Panther has been a shot in the arm for the movement—inspiring hashtags such as #Isawmyself that accompany social media storytelling about the first time a young person of color saw themselves reflected in media or popular culture. While this is a vital conversation, it should expand into other other avenues that affect they way our young people percieve themselves. 

A 2016 U.S. Department of Education report notes that while American students have never been more diverse, minority teachers make up only 18 percent of America’s educators and only 20 percent of public school principals. While racial diversity is important in any field, it is especially crucial when racial congruency—or lack thereof—affects young people in schools.  

One study found correlation between same-race teachers and reduced rates of exclusionary discipline and willful defiance among black students at all grade levels. Another found that schools with more black teachers and leadership also had more black students in gifted programs. Perhaps most disturbing is the study noting that non-black teachers have notably lower expectations of their black students than do black teachers, and that the effects are even more significant for black male students. 

What is the underlying psychological cause? 

Stanford social psychologist Claude Steele’s landmark 1995 study suggests that “stereotype boosts” occur when a group performs better than they otherwise would because of exposure to positive examples and stereotypes. Conversely, “stereotype threats”—a fear of conforming to negative stereotypes—causes a stress reaction that can lead to poor performance. Additionally, racially congruent teachers and students are more likely to share experiences and cultural literacy that lead to mutual respect and understanding. 

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that student populations at every level will continue to become more diverse, so what is being done to recruit more educators of color? To start, community colleges that offer certificate programs and associate’s degrees in teacher education are helping to move the needle. Teach for America is also heavily recruiting from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

While these efforts may impact the next generation of teachers and students, it is imperative to consider what can be done in today’s classrooms. The Seventy—Four recently quoted Philadelphia principal Sharif El-Mekki, who observed that young white girls are pitched teaching as a career as young as kindergarten, whereas people of color—especially men—aren’t introduced to the idea until after they’ve graduated college. Imagine how many young minds could be inspired if we talked about representation in the classroom as loudly as we talked about it on the big screen.

Communities In Schools works to ensure that that young people of color can see the many possibilities that lay before them. CIS is proud to have 1,968 student support specialists of color working in schools and community centers throughout the country, but that success alone will not reach all the children who deserve to see themselves as educators and leaders. Persistent, informed conversation will. 

Will you commit to talking about racial representation in the classroom? Tweet @CISNational and tell us about a teacher of color who inspired you. 

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