By Gabe Hart, Tennessee Lookout
The end of August begins to bring a sense of normalcy to the awkward tension that always exists at the beginning of each school year, as teachers and students find ways to understand and relate to one another.
Like any human interaction, trust has to be built for a relationship to grow and, to learn most effectively, students need to be able to relate to their classroom teachers.
Like many other states, Tennessee is facing a teacher shortage. There are students in school districts across our state who do not have a certified teacher in their classrooms. In some schools, students are taught by a revolving team consisting of substitutes, teacher assistants, and teachers using their planning time to monitor teacherless classrooms.
But before “teacher shortage” ever made its way into the vernacular of our national narratives, the need for more Black educators–especially in districts whose student populations were largely African-American–was alarming.
During the 2019-2020 school year, African-American students made up 24% of the student population in Tennessee while only 11% of teachers were Black. What is more alarming, however, is that nearly 80% of students of color were attending schools whose faculty was made up of less than 5% of people of color.
The majority of minority students in Tennessee will rarely have more than a few educators throughout their entire K-12 educational career who have the same cultural experiences as they have. In a profession where relationships correlate strongly with learning, minority students are at a huge disadvantage.
Seeing this discrepancy, the Tennessee State Board of Education passed The Educator Diversity Policy 5.700 in 2021. A piece of that legislation reads as follows:
“The Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation to address educator diversity in the state. T.C.A. § 49-1-302(g) requires the Commissioner to recommend, and the State Board to adopt a policy to address educator diversity. According to law, the policy must include:
Strategies for LEAs (local education agencies) to use in the recruitment and retention of minority educators; A requirement that each LEA set a goal for educator diversity that takes into consideration the diversity of the students that the LEA serves; and A plan to monitor educator diversity in the state.”
The piece of legislation was presented and passed based on an overwhelming amount of research that shows that minority students greatly benefit from learning from a teacher of their same race. While some fragile, white teachers may see this as some form of reverse racism, it’s simply common sense–students learn more from teachers in which they can relate to on deep levels.
In fact, Black students paired with Black teachers in early education have been shown to have up to a 15% greater chance to attend college when they graduate. Beyond academic success, Black males learning under a Black teacher also experience less severe discipline actions and engage in less aggressive behavior in the classroom.
I taught for 15 years in a school district that was made up of mostly minority students. My classrooms were made up of students who did not look like me or have the same life experiences as I did. My first few years were a struggle because we didn’t understand each other. By my third or fourth year, though, I came to the realization that there were simply pieces of their lives in which I could not relate or understand.
In 2018, we were reading an article in an intervention class written by a famous athlete who was an African-American. My intent in reading that article was simply to engage the students in a text–a professional athlete will oftentimes garner more interest than a poem by Robert Frost, and I really just wanted my students to engage in a text that day.
There was a section of the article that I had unconsciously breezed over because it didn’t affect me one way or the other, but it sparked a conversation that I won’t forget.
In the article, the athlete described his feelings when he was pulled over for speeding by a police officer. He spoke about how nervous he was; he talked about his heart beating faster and his hands becoming sweaty. Finally, he talked about having to have a conversation with his son about how his son should act should he ever be confronted by a police officer. My students began to say that they had this same conversation with their parents, too.
My parents surely had never had to have that conversation with me. I’ve never had to think about it myself when I was stopped for speeding or for having a headlight out on my car. It was in that moment–that extreme example–that I realized there were a lot of situations that I could never understand that my students wrestle with on a daily basis.
I had always known that there were differences in the experiences of my students and the experiences I had when I was their age living in the same town, but I had never realized how much of a relational gap existed because of them.
Was I–a white man teaching mostly black children–a good teacher? Yes. I believe I was. Most of my students would say the same thing. But to say that I could relate to them in the same way a teacher of their own race could relate to them would be ignorant.
If there was a Black English/Language Arts teacher with a similar understanding of the teaching requirements, I can confidently say that he or she would have done a better job than I ever did. I’m not fragile enough to suggest otherwise.
The General Assembly that passed the policy encouraging the hiring of diverse educators seems to be a far cry from the same group that banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory in classrooms. Like many instances in politics, those are policies that seem to be in direct odds against one another.
The teacher shortage that we will continue to experience under Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is concerning, but–like most everything in our societal system of operations–it will adversely affect people of color the most.
Good thing I’m not saying that in front of a class full of students because that’s against the law.