They Can’t Be Us, If They Do Not See Us

Growing up in the Uptown section of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I struggled to find positive African American male role models. Drug use, alcoholism, and crime were common place, and many adult men who could have served as mentors were instead in prison, leaving me to be raised by a village of women who did the very best they could. Then I met Roger Hines, a Black elementary school teacher who would change my life forever. I had never before witnessed a Black man working in a school except for security and custodians. A Black man in a position of power and prestige was electrifying. At first, I was shocked, because I had never had a teacher who looked like me. How did he get here? What he a substitute? Maybe he was security wearing a suit? He was not my teacher, but his presence alone was enough for me to believe in the dream of becoming a Black male educator. As I walked down my school’s white ceramic-tiled hallways, it was as if I had peered into a mirror that showed me my future self.

Once I left elementary school and Mr. Hines was no longer there for me to idolize, I began to forget my dream of becoming a teacher as I encountered a steady stream of middle-aged white female teachers. I wondered if Mr Hines was just an anomaly or a product of curated diversity. Just as I began questioning my calling to the Ministry of Education, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Frederick Jones, my unapologetically Black 7th grade English and Language Arts Teacher. Mr. Jones was ahead of his time, perfecting the art of project-based learning, social-emotional learning, and culturally responsive teaching decades before these became more widely embraced in the American educational system. He understood that the purpose of education is to empower learners to be change agents, and that education should be tailored in such a way that all learners can experience success. Mr. Jones renewed my drive to become an educator and be the next role model for students of color in an often traumatizing public school system.

My story is one example of why we need more teachers of color, along with other efforts to make schools more diverse, equitable, and affirming. Research has shown that teachers of color are more likely to demonstrate culturally responsive teaching practices and mindsets, including building relationships with families and believing that all students can learn. Studies continue to show the positive impact teachers of color have on academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes for students of all races. And yet, teachers of color are often steered toward working in high-poverty areas with large populations of students of color, where they often have fewer resources and lower pay, contributing to higher levels of racial segregation among teachers than among students in the United States . But the truth is that every school and district in Pennsylvania needs teachers of color, because all students, regardless of race, will benefit from encountering teachers like Mr. Hines, Mr. Jones, and me.

Roger Hines, left, and Frederick Jones

At the state level, our lawmakers must implement policies to support the recruitment, retention, and professional development of teachers of color. Pennsylvania Senate Bill 99, sponsored by Senator Vincent Hughes and Senator Ryan Aument, would create pathways into teaching for underrepresented youth, provide funding for educator preparation programs to diversify the workforce, and remove barriers to certification that disproportionately impact teachers of color.

At the school level, administrators need to ensure there is representation at all levels. Teachers of color should not be forced into roles as disciplinarians for students of color or have to relive or inflict trauma. Teachers of color need to be called upon as experts to lead professional development or coach peers in culturally responsive instruction and building relationships. Teachers of color need to be drafted into work groups responsible for changing school and district disciplinary policies that disproportionately punish students of color and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

If we want to strengthen the very fabric of American democracy, we must invest our resources into it repairing the leaky teacher pipeline, starting with the recruitment, retention, and professional development of educators of color. We cannot create an education system that is reflective of the nation of students we serve until the students we serve see an education system that is reflective of them.

Durrell Burns teaches 9th grade English and Public Speaking at Harrisburg High School: John Harris Campus. He is a 2021-22 Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow.

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