Recently, researchers at American University and Johns Hopkins found that having just one black teacher can reduce a black boy’s likelihood of dropping out by thirty-nine percent. This is great news for my impact as a Black teacher, but I fear that some will read this study and incorrectly conclude that we immediately need more teachers of color in the classroom. While more teachers of color are needed, simply having a more diverse teaching staff is not enough. School leaders must be equipped to develop and foster the competencies needed to make sure there is a culture of diversity and inclusion in schools.
Here is an example: I am a Black male teacher who identifies as gay. After being hired at one school where I worked, I attended a staff retreat. My principal and the efforts he made to establish camaraderie amongst his staff impressed me. I even felt comfortable enough to come out to him during my interview. It was clear to me that my sexuality did not matter to him and that he was focused on the business of educating children through hiring high-quality educators of diverse backgrounds.
Then, during one of the team-building exercises at the retreat, the staff was instructed to hold hands. My school leader proceeded to share that it is more likely the men’s hands are clasped on top because “men are more dominant” and the women’s hands are at the bottom because they are more “submissive.” Some men’s hands were clasped in the “submissive” position, which led to jokes that were both sexist and homophobic.
This principal’s narrative over-generalized gender expectations and assumed everyone identified as either a man or a woman, which simply is not the case. Moreover, this myopic thinking harms students by passively creating an environment of identity exclusion. For instance, what happens if a male student is teased for being feminine or actually identifies as gay? What about female-identified students who get treated inappropriately by male students? We cannot expect these situations to be handled with the grace and care our students deserve if the facilitators of these conversations have uncomplicated views on race and gender themselves. This is additionally problematic because a culture of identity exclusion is tied to increased absenteeism and harsh discipline policies for LGBTQ students in particular. And these moments that on the surface appear harmless make it very clear to me, as a Black gay male teacher, that the full extent of my identity may not be welcomed in the space, which impedes my ability to support the various identities of my students.
Moments like this are happening in schools across the country everyday—not because principals or teachers are bad people, but because we all need diversity training to ensure diverse students and staff feel part of the school community. Seemingly small interactions of discomfort or insensitivity can translate into unfavorable working and learning conditions for teachers and students from marginalized backgrounds. Research shows that principal impact on student achievement is second only to that of teachers, and principal leadership is also a strong determining factor in staff satisfaction and retention.
Make no mistake: we do need more teachers of color, but it is ineffective to hire a more diverse teaching base if they are not thoroughly supported and actively included in school culture. Our black, brown, and other marginalized students benefit from teachers who share their identities, but they can also benefit just as much from teachers, and principals of all backgrounds receiving diversity training and professional development.
Research on implicit bias shows that our underlying assumptions, both conscious and latent, can impact the expectations that we set for students of color, and even how we discipline them, as early as preschool. Thus, diversity training is not about our intentions and core values, which are both good. It is more about supporting action, dialogue, and understanding for how we relate to one another.
We may not be able to create absolutely perfect schools, but school leaders can spearhead a culture where challenging moments are discussed and embraced, rather than pushed under the rug. That is when the real, sustainable changes can occur.
Chicago Public Schools recently began implementing a diversity training program for all resident principals called “Critical Cultural Competence.” The Chicago branch of Educators for Excellence (E4E), a nationwide organization that promotes educator advocacy and leadership development, has partnered its teacher diversity working group with the district to push forward a principal preparation plan that will include diversity education. We hope the impact of this program will be an increase in diverse hiring practices, staff satisfaction and retention, and a district-wide culture of support that celebrates diversity and practices proactive inclusion strategies. This is a step in the right direction and will require due diligence from all parties involved in order to successfully create the school environments our students need.
Aaron Talley is a writer, activist, educator, and E4E-Chicago member who currently teaches middle school language arts on the Far South Side. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where he received a B.A. in English, as well as an M.A. in Teaching from the university’s Urban Teaching Education Program. He is originally from Detroit, Michigan.
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