Why U.S. Schools Need Educators of Color: The Historical Roots of Disappearing Black Teachers
In the 1967 film “To Sir With Love”, Sidney Poitier’s character Mark Thakeray faces racial and economic discrimination while inspiring a school of predominantly white students. In 2007’s “Freedom Writers,” a white teacher must earn the trust of a racially mixed group of at-risk students. These movies are meant to move us emotionally, but in truth they reflect a similar movement within the American school system.
In 2010, 52 percent of students enrolled in public school were white, 23 percent were Hispanic, 16 percent were black, and 5 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander. However, the diversity of American students is not reflected in its pool of teachers.
Desegregation and racist displacement of teachers and administrators
This shift in teaching populations may have been the result of desegregation of schools. In her research publication “(Un)Intended Consequences? The Impact of Brown vs. The Board of Education Decision on the Employment Status of Black Educators,” Dr. Linda Tillman shares a startling March 1953 letter from the Superintendent of Schools in Topeka, Kansas, who terminated an African-American teacher’s contract “on the assumption that the majority of people in Topeka will not want to employ negro teachers next year for White children.”
Tillman examines a variety of measures that were used to drive black teachers out of the profession. These included revoking teaching licenses, eliminating teaching licensing programs, and requiring black teachers to take standardized tests. As a result, a great number of black teachers were effectively removed from their profession.
Black principals became de facto administrative assistants
At the same time that jobs for black teachers disappeared, black principals suffered demotions. “What Happened to all the Black Principals After Brown?” cites an interview with a black educator in Texas about his experience in the field post-Brown:
“We had a lot of black middle school and elementary school principals that were placed in an assistant principal’s position and very, very many of them who were called assistant principals. Basically they ran errands—they ran errands! Basically, if you were the librarian or you were the principal, you became an assistant. There were no black principals, head coaches, or head band directors. The most negative thing that I experienced was being placed in a sub position coaching with the experience that I had.”
Present day: Black and Hispanic teachers are the minority
This post-desegregation shift continues to be felt today in the numbers of African-Americans who seek teaching licensure and degrees. According to Dr. Tillman, about 86 percent of currently employed teachers are white; the population of African-American teachers dropped five percent between 1970 and 1998. Though she attributes the decline to a variety of causes, one explanation is the lack of experienced mentors encouraging African-American students to enter the profession.
In “Profiles of Teachers in the US in 2011,” the National Center for Educational Information released data showing that currently, seven percent of United States teachers identify as African-American, six percent are Hispanic, and four percent identify as “other” .
The vast majority — 90 percent — of black teachers are women, making male African-American teachers a rarity. CNN’s “In America” blog noted that according to the Department of Education, black men account for less than one out of every 50 teachers in the United States.
One teacher they interviewed, Terris King, explained that he felt he “fit a void” in the lives of his African-American students, particularly young men.
In part two, we will explore how teaching programs and educational organizations are addressing the lack of teacher diversity.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.