Harvesting Teachers of Color to Improve -- And Save -- Lives

Common sense suggests students may learn best from dedicated teachers who can relate to them.

Hard science may support that proposition, too. Some researchers believe material in certain brain cells makes it easier for human beings to empathize with one another. For more than 20 years, Italian neuroscientists have studied these so-called "mirror neurons" to see if people with less of this material are more likely to have social communication and processing disorders, while those with an abundance are better able to identify and embrace the emotions they detect in others -- from echoing a passing smile to wincing when a person stubs a toe.

To be sure, some researchers believe human empathy has little or nothing to do with "mirror neurons." Yet this line of brain research may lead us to more deeply understand social engagements in our diverse global community.

In the classroom, these social explorations may tell us a great deal about how students learn and why, and what builds effectiveness in a teacher. As Gloria Ladson-Billings of the University of Wisconsin at Madison poignantly writes:

I do know the experience of walking into schools (especially elementary and middle schools) where Black students ask me with eagerness, "Are you a teacher here?" And, I recognize the disappointment that falls over those same faces when I shake my head, "no." Their longing for a teacher that "looks like them" is palpable. The current statistics indicate that class after class of children -- Black, Native American, Latino, and Asian -- go through entire school careers without ever having a teacher of their same race or ethnicity.

But, I want to suggest that there is something that may be even more important than Black students having Black teachers and that is White students having Black teachers! It is important for White students to encounter Black people who are knowledgeable and hold some level of authority over them. Black students ALREADY know that Black people have a wide range of capabilities. They see them in their homes, their neighborhoods, and their churches. They are the Sunday school teachers, their Scout Leaders, their coaches, and family members. But what opportunities do White students have to see and experience Black competence?

In my many years as a university professor I have had many White students who revealed that I was the first African-American teacher they had ever had at any level. My hope is that their experience with me makes them walk into classrooms filled with Black children and say, "there could be doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, inventors, and teachers in here," rather than assume that their black skins limited their intellectual possibilities.

We've known for years that students need to be exposed to teachers of color. We know students learn best in diverse educational circumstances. And we also know that the more diverse the student and teacher population, the higher student academic achievement is likely to be.

Yet the challenge we face is that, in a majority of urban schools, the student population is more segregated than it was 60 years ago, after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case (1954). At the same time, the teaching force has become "whiter," with as many as four white teachers for every teacher of color. Black teachers make up less than 7 percent of America's teaching force of approximately 3.2 million teachers.

Clearly, there is a need to train and retain effective teachers of color, as well as white teachers, for urban school systems, though this is not a priority for every urban district. However, when committed partners come together -- as my organization, the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, did from 2005 to 2009, when it joined the University of Alabama at Birmingham to support Birmingham City Schools -- positive change does happen.

Together, we implemented the federally funded Training, Retaining Urban Student Teachers (TRUST) project -- and retained an impressive 87 percent of TRUST graduates for Birmingham and other urban school systems.

The late Michael J. Froning, the dean of UAB's School of Education, compared the TRUST process to "nurturing a garden," one that begins by "preparing the soil" with an enhanced educational environment and targeted strategies and then "assembles the seeds" by recruiting teacher candidates at the University, as well as paraprofessionals already in the school system.

Courses specifically designed for urban settings were co-taught by university faculty and teacher leaders in the school system. This collaborative, continuous professional development environment enabled the "crop" to "grow." A commitment to support recruits during their crucial first years of teaching allowed them to "thrive," yielding a bounty of teachers for the school system ("Recruiting, Preparing, and Retaining Urban Teachers: One Person's View From Many Angles," in Recruiting, Preparing, and Retaining Teachers for Urban Schools, AACTE Publication, 2006).

Dr. Froning and his colleagues dreamed the TRUST project one day would be replicated across the country. Given the deaths of African-American youth in urban cities across our great nation, I would argue that the need never has been greater.

If we are to show children that Black, white, Asian, Latino and Native American lives do matter, then we must bring people leading those very lives into our classrooms every day. If we want a lush garden of educators to flourish in America on behalf of schoolchildren and youth, then we must recruit, cultivate and retain teachers of color.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.