Teachers’ names have been changed.
In my 14 years of education, I have only had one Black teacher for an academic subject, 9th grade biology. My three other Black teachers taught physical education and dance. That means of the 80 or so teachers I’ve had, only around 5% have been Black.
I recently graduated from Stuyvesant, one of New York’s top public high schools. I was one of just 10 Black students admitted in my class out of 953 offered admission that year. Stuyvesant’s failure to admit more than a handful of Black students each year has become a flashpoint in the dispute raging around how to best address inequities in New York’s public school system.
Often absent from the debate, however, is the chronic lack of teachers of color. As of this writing, of the 213 faculty and staff listed on Stuyvesant’s website, just 10 are Black. Only four teach academic subjects like math, science, and English.
Nationwide, 80% of teachers are White, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While over 65% of students in New York City’s public schools are Black and Latinx, only 32% of teachers in the system are, according to data compiled by The Education Trust–New York.
These Black and Latinx teachers often teach in school districts with higher concentrations of Black and Latinx students. Predominantly White or Asian school districts have mostly White and Asian teachers. This leaves Black students in predominantly non-Black schools with few or no adults who look like them, forced to navigate microaggressive school environments largely by ourselves.
Here to Learn, Not Teach
In my first year of high school, my world history teacher, Mr. Smith, who is White, decided that the entirety of our unit on the transatlantic slave trade would be an eight-minute clip from the movie Amistad. The scene portrays naked Black men and women crying and screaming in the hull of a slave ship. It shows them being whipped and beaten. It shows Black women chained together as they are tossed into the sea, dragged beneath the waves by each other’s weight.
As I sat in the back of the classroom crying beneath the dimmed lights and covering my ears to block out the screams, Mr. Smith stood next to the screen, cracking jokes. I was the only Black person in the room.
What are we learning from this? I wondered. How could my teacher possibly think that showing a short clip with no context could teach us the complexities and long-term impacts of the largest forced migration in history?
The next day after class I asked Mr. Smith if he had anything else prepared for the unit. He said no. After I expressed my dissatisfaction, he told me that if I thought there was more the class should know, he would be happy to give me a class period to present it. A week later I stood in front of the class, teaching my classmates and my teacher about the Atlantic slave trade.
Students are in the classroom to learn, not teach. But my Black classmates and I were often subject to our teachers’ implicit and explicit expectations for us to supplement their lessons on Black history and literature. Teachers called on us to share our experiences or prior knowledge when their instruction fell short.
I felt that Mr. Smith was a terrible teacher for many reasons that had nothing to do with his race. But that incident demonstrates the insensitivity and barriers to learning that arise when schools lack Black teachers.
Role Models Matter
In art history we didn’t learn the name of a single Black artist. We learned nothing of the countless contributions Black people have made in STEM fields. My sophomore year English teacher didn’t teach a single author of color. When teachers did introduce Black artists or writers, they often tokenized them, including them for diversity’s sake while further marginalizing Black experiences and excluding them from the norm.
Teachers may have a limited say in terms of curriculum. But according to an article in The Atlantic called “Why Schools Need More Teachers of Color—for White Students,” anecdotal evidence suggests teachers of color are more likely to teach racially relevant material. They are better than White teachers at talking about race in a meaningful, productive way.
The lack of Black teachers also makes it harder for Black students to speak up about racial insensitivity in the classroom. Last year, when a Black student at Stuyvesant asked his White teacher to intervene after being called a “coon” by a non-Black classmate, she told him to “calm down” and continued with the lesson. When an Asian student jokingly told another Black student that he would lynch her, she didn’t even bother telling her teacher, assuming, based on experience, that nothing would come of it.
When the people in charge of our education and well-being don’t look like us, don’t understand our experiences, and don’t try to make their classrooms more inclusive, Black students are the ones who suffer. While having more Black teachers would not have been a fix-all, it would have helped me feel safer in a school environment where I often felt alienated and misunderstood because of my race.
Numerous studies show the positive impact on Black students that comes from having role models of the same race in school. Research shows that teachers of color generally have higher expectations for students of color, leading to improved performance in class and on standardized tests. Having a Black teacher in elementary school reduces high school dropout rates among very low-income Black boys by 39%, according to a Johns Hopkins study. North Carolina public school data aggregated by Education Next shows that Black male teachers were significantly less likely to suspend Black male students than White female teachers.
The lack of teachers of color also hurts White students, who will enter an increasingly diverse workforce. Nearly half of White students in New York attend a school without a single Black or Latinx teacher. As Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings told Education Week, “It is important for White students to encounter Black people who are knowledgeable and hold some level of authority over them.”
The Pipeline Excuse
At the start of my senior year I’d had enough. I scheduled a meeting with Mr. Brown, the assistant principal of the English department. I wanted to address the glaring lack of Black teachers at my school and make the case for hiring more.
“Especially in English classes, where we discuss so many issues related to race, having people who can understand and relate to the things they’re teaching about is important,” I said. “Of the 24 teachers in the department, only two are people of color! The vast majority of students here aren’t White and the faculty should reflect that.”
Mr. Brown paused for a moment, frowning as he laced his fingers together in front of his mouth. “William,” he said softly, “I just want you to know that I hear you and respect your opinion. It is so important that students are bringing these kinds of issues to the attention of the administration.”
He cleared his throat, leaning back in his chair. “I promise you, I’m dedicated to making the department more diverse. It’s one of our top priorities. But let me explain to you how it works on my end.” He went on to explain to me how, despite his many efforts to “boost diversity,” there were just no “qualified Black applicants.”
I was disappointed. Mr. Brown had once worked at a school that served predominantly people of color, cried with our class when Trump was elected, and taught Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yet here he was rehashing the “pipeline” excuse.
Research shows that people with hiring power, like Mr. Brown, often draw on their pre-existing networks and unconscious biases to make new hires when an opening arises. This can include their friends, people they went to college with, or colleagues from previous jobs. In many professions, including teaching, those networks are often overwhelmingly White due to segregated social circles, generational privilege, and historic job discrimination. As a result, it can be hard to find applicants of color within traditional networks.
The solution is not to blame the pipeline, but to actively seek out and contact qualified people of color and encourage them to apply for open positions.
I sat back, growing increasingly uncomfortable as Mr. Brown continued. “Also, Black teachers often just have a hard time fitting in here. Whether by coincidence or…something else, different issues often arise with Black teachers.”
He told me a story about a Black former English teacher who was, according to his account, out to get him. “Maybe she just couldn’t stand the fact that I was a White guy or maybe it was for personal reasons. I don’t know. She was just so angry.”
When the meeting was over I rushed out of Mr. Brown’s office to one of the few Black adults in the building, my guidance counselor. I was distraught. I had come face to face with the structural inequalities and systemic discrimination I had felt the effects of throughout my education. My guidance counselor understood. She said it was all right to be frustrated by this, and that she herself was often frustrated. She told me I would have to deal with situations like this long beyond high school.
Advocating for Ourselves
To my knowledge, the faculty at Stuyvesant is still just as White as it was when I started as a freshman. Though my meeting with Mr. Brown may not have had an immediate impact, I’m hopeful that next time he is hiring, he’ll think back to our conversation and expand his net, looking a little harder for those “qualified Black applicants” who seem so elusive.
Next year I am attending a university where 80% of the tenured faculty members are White. Only 13% of students in my class are Black, and I will likely be in the minority for much of my professional life. This experience with Mr. Brown will encourage me to advocate for myself, to create support systems, and to craft the spaces around me to be as diverse and inclusive as I know they should be.
To anyone with hiring power in the education system: Make sure that you are doing the best you can to hire and train teachers of color, and do your part to remedy the systemic inequalities that exist in your school.
To students: Hold teachers and administrators at your school to account. Bring up the issue of hiring practices to those in charge and talk with your principal about your experiences. You are who these institutions are meant to serve, and you have a voice. Don’t be afraid to use it.