In a state where the majority of students are ethnic minorities — 45 percent of students are Latino — there’s an urgent need for students to have teachers that look like them.
“It’s a top priority for CTA,” says CTA President David A. Sanchez. “We must actively recruit ethnic minority students into the teaching profession.”
NEA research shows that when teachers of color are missing, minority students land more frequently in special education classes, have higher absentee rates, and tend to be less involved in school activities. Other experts say a lack of minority teachers hampers staff’s ability to relate to a diverse student body and boost parental involvement.
According to the California Department of Education, 27 percent of California teachers are ethnic minorities, including 16 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, and 4 percent African American. An additional 1 percent have multiple ethnicities or declined to state.
“We’ve upped the cost of going to college, and at the same time the number of minority students entering teaching dropped,” says Nena Torrez, a professor in CSU-San Bernardino’s credential program and a member of the California Faculty Association.
Tamara Harris, a student at CSU-Fullerton and a Student CTA ethnic minority representative, believes more students of color would enter the profession if more scholarships and financial aid were available.
“I think we need to put more effort and money into recruiting minorities,” says Harris. “We should be doing it when students are high school age and younger, at a time when they are thinking about what they want to do with their lives.”
She believes the image of teaching has taken a beating in recent years because of negative press, which has deterred minorities and others from entering the profession.
“Sometimes I think we’re fighting a losing battle when it comes to the image of teaching,” says Harris, who is African American.
“It’s partly because of salary. When you are a minority who is able to successfully complete college, sometimes you are challenged to do other things besides becoming a teacher.”
“For many years, people were telling me I should be a teacher, and I fought them all the way,” she says. “My mother was a teacher, and everyone kept saying I should be one. I said, ‘No, that’s not me.’ But when I started tutoring students, I realized it was me.”
Once she embraced the idea of becoming a teacher, the same people tried to talk her out of it. “They said I should be an engineer because I’d make more money,” she says incredulously. “But it’s not all about the money.”
In Oakland, it can be a big factor, says Keith Brown, an African American teacher. “Sometimes people of color are the first in their families to make it to college and are looking not only at supporting themselves, but supporting their families. That can be difficult on a teacher’s salary.”
Students are rarely recruited to become teachers in Oakland, observes Brown, but there are billboards everywhere recruiting youngsters to become police officers. Perhaps there should also be billboards encouraging teens to consider teaching.
Men represent barely a quarter of the teaching population, the lowest level in four decades. But they’re needed to serve as role models, says Brown, a member of the Oakland Education Association.
“In urban communities, especially communities of color, a lot of students grow up without father figures. Many are being raised by grandmothers. It is definitely important to see males as students, educators and productive people in our society. Once students see images of males — and males of color — as intelligent, productive people, it plants a seed. In the future, they may look at going into teaching as a career.”
Unfortunately, because most classrooms are staffed by women, boys tend to see it as women’s work, says Brown. “Sometimes, it is not until high school that boys see male figures as teachers. It doesn’t seem like an option for a lot of males.”
As for Brown, you might say a funny thing happened on his way to becoming a lawyer. He volunteered as a tutor and mentor at juvenile hall, and fell in love with the idea of becoming a teacher.
“I decided to change career paths so I could give back to the community,” says Brown, who has been teaching at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland for a decade.
“I noticed a connection between the struggle to read and behavior. I wanted to do something about that.
“I also saw a need for students to have more black male role models in the schools.” When students ask him why he decided to become a teacher, they are sometimes surprised at his answer:
“I tell them I want to help give them the skills they need to go on to college and to help them become productive citizens,” he says. “I tell them I want to give back to the community.
“And I encourage them to think about teaching for the same reasons.”