There’s a distinct lack of diversity among Michigan’s educators. In districts across the state, just 6% of public school teachers are black. To fix that, you'll need more black students choosing to pursue education degrees in college. So, what is keeping them from doing so? And how can we change that?
Regena Fails Nelson is professor and chair of the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Educational Studies at Western Michigan University. She says that more than 80% of the students in Western’s teaching program are white, female, and middle class. That demographic mirrors the current population of educators in Michigan.
Nelson says Western's program is designed to consider the fact that those future teachers may not have experience working with — or even interacting with — people of color.
“We set up our curriculum to address those issues throughout the program, so that when these teachers leave our program, they have a better understanding of their own bias, their own identity, their own privilege, other cultures, and how to create a classroom environment that’s welcoming for all children,” Nelson said.
Still, Nelson says, increasing the number of teachers of color is critically important. She says that for students of color, having a teacher who shares and understands their cultural background can maximize their potential in the classroom.
Universities across the country have seen a decline in students across all demographics pursuing teaching careers. And that means the already small pool of teachers of color is shrinking even further.
Nelson attributes the lack of interest in teaching, in part, to the profession’s demanding hours, lack of support, and low pay. She notes that state and federal policies like loan forgiveness and incentives for teachers that work in urban districts could help draw more people to the field, and in turn, create more teachers of color.
One district that's been able to do a better than average job at building a diverse staff is Kalamazoo Public Schools. The district is made up mostly of students of color, and its regular teaching staff is 13% black — more than double the state’s rate.
Sheila Dorsey-Smith is the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for Kalamazoo Public Schools. She says that she and her staff work hard to recruit potential teachers from within the Kalamazoo community, particularly people of color.
Dorsey-Smith's district is also working with the Michigan Education Association to help their support staff become certified teachers. Nelson says that Western Michigan University is involved in that effort, which seeks to create pathways for uncertified professionals in schools — many of whom are people of color — to obtain certification.
“I would hope that eventually, our teaching staff mirrors our student body,” Dorsey-Smith said.
Additionally, all teachers in Kalamazoo Public Schools go through anti-bias, anti-racist training, and regular classroom observations. Administrators then meet with teachers and let them know which students they did, and did not, call on, information that teachers can use to be more inclusive moving forward.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.