The Absence of Teachers of Color, isn’t Just a Problem for Non-White students; It’s a Problem for All Students

This week at SXSW@edu, an annual conference of innovators and educators in Austin, Tex., I’m speaking on a subject I’m passionate about: the shortage of teachers, particularly teachers of color, and ensuring that all students have the caring, qualified, and committed educators they deserve.

The research shows that teachers of color have a positive impact on the academic achievement of racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse students. This impact is especially pronounced in students who are struggling. 

But the absence of teachers of color – some refer to it as a “disappearance crisis” – isn’t just a problem for non-white students; it is a problem for all students. Teachers of color “can help disrupt what are often one-sided portrayals of the world and offer invaluable insight to students from different backgrounds,” says a recent article in The Atlantic, by Melinda D. Anderson.

There’s no question that something must change – and quickly. Baby boomers are retiring and the candidates who could fill their jobs are simply not there. More than 50 percent of public school students are African American, Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islander, or Native American. Yet, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are non-White. We need to talk about the dire need to recruit and retain more teachers and the importance of ensuring that they represent the richness and diversity of our students and nation.

But it’s not as if we need to pull the Scooby Doo gang back together and solve a mystery. We understand the problem and the answers are pretty straightforward. All we need is the commitment to deal with it.


Here’s what we need:

Increase pay for teachers and all educators. Make college affordable and improve federal student loan forgiveness programs so that if you go into education, you won’t still be paying off your student loans when it’s time to retire. Provide more high-quality professional development and mentoring programs to support and retain teachers.

As teachers, most of us can’t imagine doing anything else. We consider what we do for a living our calling. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paid and treated as the professionals we are.

If everyone in our schools, from bus drivers to paraeducators and lunch ladies, were paid what they were worth, educators would be at the top of the salary food chain. Unfortunately, our nation says this work is important, but we pay like it isn’t. If the average player in the NBA earns $4.6 million a year, then surely we can raise the salaries of educators, who – not to take anything away from Stephen Curry – do the most important work there is.

LINWOOD MIDDLE SCHOOLOur nation must also address college affordability. This is the focus of the NEA’s Degrees not Debt campaign. Many college students would love to pursue a career in education, but it’s a choice they can’t afford to make given what they’ll likely earn. The prospective of student loan debt may be particularly discouraging for students of color, who are often the first in their families to attend college and start out with fewer resources and less family wealth than White families. (In fact, there is a gap of $236,500 between the average wealth of White families and Black families.)

We need to enhance programs that forgive federal student loans for teachers and others who work in public sector. These professionals, by virtue of what they’ve chosen to do for a living, are making an investment in our nation’s future. We should be willing to invest in them.

Making an investment in teachers also means committing resources to our development and growth. I know in my heart of hearts that we have the best jobs on the planet. But our work is also demanding and, at times, difficult. Newcomers can feel isolated and alone. They need the support of their colleagues, but they also need the opportunity to continually enhance their skills. This happens through evidence-based professional development, induction services, and mentoring programs that can help us retain educators who might otherwise leave education.

The bottom line is: The solutions to dealing with the teacher shortage and building a more diverse workforce are staring us in the face. It all starts with recognizing that educators are, first and foremost, professionals, and treating all of us that way.

16 Responses to “The Absence of Teachers of Color, isn’t Just a Problem for Non-White students; It’s a Problem for All Students”

  1. Regina

    I totally agree. My daughter is a second-year third grade teacher and a single parent to boot. She has student loan debt, and gets paid peanuts for the time she spends preparing and teaching students. Loan forgiveness, pay increase must begin now, not tomorrow. Let’s continue to stay on the front lines until we bridge the pay gap in eduction.

  2. Nan Palm

    I totally agree with the preceding article, as a retired teacher of color I worked with a diverse student population as well as mentored student teachers with the majority of them being non minority with much success and appreciation. It is imperative that these future teachers are given a fighting chance and one way is to reduce the student debt.

  3. Larry

    1. In your article you quote The Atlantic: “Teachers of color “can help disrupt what are often one-sided portrayals of the world and offer invaluable insight to students from different backgrounds,” says a recent article in The Atlantic.” it sounds like you are implying that white teachers are discriminating against students of “color”, favoring to present “one-sided portrayals of the world” and failing to present “invaluable insight” to students who are other than white. 2. Except on the low end of the scale, teachers a paid very appropriately for the number of days in their contracts. It is not fair to pay someone the equivalent of working a full year (262 days including holidays and vacations) when the actual contracted days is much fewer (180-190). 3. College would be a lot more affordable now if the federal government had kept its hands out of education and the industry didn’t promote an “everyone should go to college” agenda. Everyone is not suited for higher education, and not everyone should go to college. There are many fine jobs in the trades in which many fine former students are making a good living, and, I might say, are vary happy. 4. Teachers are important to have and certainly serve an honorable purpose, but please, come down off your high horse. 5. You can blame some of the lack of young people entering the teaching profession on me. I advise anyone who is thinking of becoming a teacher, not too. The profession is controlled by government and “the ivory tower” institutions of higher learning; teachers don’t teach anymore they follow the policies and rules and methods and assessment and propaganda, etc. dictated to them. And, if that is not bad enough, they are the bad guys if a student doesn’t “succeed”. Well, good luck with your speech.

  4. Jen

    It’s a shame this article provides no data to support the “obvious solutions” proposed. It’s not like higher paying jobs have a higher proportion of people of color in our society. We all know that higher paying jobs generally do worse in this area. For sure better pay will attract more people to the profession, but will it actually change the proportion of people of color to those of European descent entering the field? The answer is even more basic than that – we need to make people of all colors, people from all cultures, people from all states and countries, people of all sexual orientations, people of all abilities, people of all appearances, everyone, feel welcome and valued in our education system. Until we can do that, we can not expect people of color (or anyone not represented by the current teacher demographic) to want to enter the education field. Better pay would certainly go a long way, but a little respect would go a lot further.

  5. Anita Misra

    I am a minority teacher and have taught in different countries. Sometimes it really hurts to see that minority teachers are not treated fairly and they do not get their due respect. We need more support and only then minority teachers can be retained. There has to be a support system where teachers can take advice/suggestions to work in a stress free environment. If teachers are mentally happy, only then it will impact student learning effectively.

    • Bel

      I fully agree with your view. I am a 30 years’ experienced minority teacher and the first thing I encountered this year was a complete refusal of collaboration from the veteran teachers. I have witnessed unfortunate offensive comments from colleagues and Administrators alike. These comments indicated to me that schools are in a dire need for diversity training to foster a multicultural awareness among administrators, teachers, students, parents, and the community at large.

      • Dee

        Agree. I’ve experienced offhand comments as well. I have to educate ignorant educators.

  6. Nan

    This article is so very important. Working in the south I’ve been confronted with the reality of being the only Hispanic teacher in the building. I believe minority teachers are vital in the lives of all students. Perhaps we need to be a louder voice to see a bigger and better outcome in the field of education.

  7. Marie Baca

    Being a teacher is definitely a calling. The demands, needs and requirements are high however, the pay and recognition are low. Attracting other teachers of color is going to take change to our system – better pay, Improved working conditions, community, parental and administrative support as well as training, and yes loan forgiveness. All students deserve the best education and as teachers we need to be empowered to give our best.

  8. Louis Foust Jr.

    The problem is African American males are not hired as Elementary School Teachers. I completed High School and earned an Associate Degree in Applied Science Logistics while an Active Duty in the United States Air Force. After retirement I graduated from college with a degree in Organization Communication in order to get into a Teacher Credentialing program. There are so many young men of color that are misunderstood, or not understood at all. While in the credentialing program in a school district with fifty-six elementary schools there were only four Black male elementary school teachers. I felt that there would be a need for teachers such as myself, a teacher that could truly say, “I understand,” because I have been where a lot of at Risk Students are, I could have never been so wrong. Black male teachers are not hired as teachers; we are hired as substitute teachers. I became credentialed in 2005 and became a cleared credential teacher in 2008. I have taught a sixth grade class of students that no other teacher would accept with no support in 2006 with no support and not retained and a sixth grade class again of students no other teacher would accept in 2007-2008 and not retained because of funding. 2008 is when teacher downsizings started in California. Even before the layoff of over 32,000 teachers in California in the Sacramento area Black male teachers were not being hired. I have substituted for teachers that would say, “Just check to see if the home work was done, I don’t have the time to check to see if it has been done correctly.” In my opinion and what I have seen is that most teachers see teaching as a method to make my house payment and if the students learn good and if they do not that is ok too as long as I can make my house payment and be off during the summer with my children. I became feed-up with being a substitute teacher and am now working in private industry. I feel that being a teacher is a calling and as a teacher you must take it personal when student under your charge are not learning, I do.

    • arleatha

      Please don’t give up. You are correct, young men of color are needed throughout the education arena.

  9. Jay

    The real problem here is that teachers of color are often discriminated against during the hiring process, or even after employment. I have experienced this sort of situation time and time again. We are looked at as inferior educators who are no match to our white counterparts. The problem is not lack of teachers of color, the problem is that we as a society are accustomed to white (mainly female) teachers in the classroom and can often times overlook other candidates that can carry out this role just as effectively. Now this situation can vary regionally, but the problem is still there. Administrators are just not hiring, or overlooking teachers of color.

    • arleatha

      In many cases educators of color are bypassed in favor of that person that is friends, related to (someone), or recommended by a friend.

      • Jay

        This is very true! There is little to no regards to education, it is all based on personal opinion, while our school system suffers in the process. It really is a shame.

  10. Cesar Torres Jr.

    I agree. As a hispanic teacher I was pulled out of the manufacturing area to teach Spanish. The program to make the transition to teach was fantastic. The problem surfaced when school systems here in my state refused to hire a man of color. The program at the University was embarrassed. I was passed around and finally ended up driving 1000 a wk to teach in a different time zone. I know that I made a difference modeling my profession but, @ a cost.


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