A Parent’s Perspective on the Benefits of Teachers of Color

The hunt for a magic bullet to fix American education continues.

At one point the big buzzword was Finland (while ignoring all the differences in Finland’s teacher training that, as of now, would never fly in the US).

Then it was PreK For All (while ignoring that, as currently implemented in NYC, it’s actually hurting exactly those students it was supposed to help).

Then it was Computer Science For All (while ignoring that the implementation timeline would ensure the curriculum’s obsolescence as soon as it was finally approved).

Now the solution de jour is to hire more teachers of color. Black teachers “get” black students. And no less an authority than NPR has declared that students of all races prefer teachers of color.

My husband is African-American. We have three children. Over the years, my kids have had a handful of Black, Hispanic, and Asian teachers. Some they have adored. Some they have feared. One, I was informed, “doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Have I seen benefits to my children being taught by teachers of color that I don’t see with their majority white teachers? Well, my daughter did love having one teacher who was Black and Jewish – just like her. (Really, what are the odds of that?) And  — another benefit —  the class did spend a lot of time discussing civil rights, stereotypes, racism,  and sexism.  Then again, so did the white teachers my daughter had the following year. It’s a big part of her school’s curriculum.

When it came to the teachers of color my children have learned from the most, they’ve all had one thing in common. It wasn’t that they were teachers of color. It was that they were excellent teachers. Knowledgeable, passionate, engaging, consistent, in control, able to set high standards and help their students achieve them, as well as not prone to accepting excuses when students didn’t. Pretty much the same qualities possessed by my children’s best white teachers.

The teachers of color my children disliked shared traits, as well. They were disorganized, used collective punishment, refused to answer unsanctioned questions (possibly due to ignorance), and deadly dull. Just like their least favorite white teachers. (Despite what NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio claims, all teachers are most certainly not created equal.)

As it happens, my husband is a teacher. A pretty popular one. I asked him if he thought his popularity was because he is a male teacher of color. He said he thought it played some role with his white students. He did come in with a bit of “cool” cachet (that is tempered by the fact that, as a below-average height man, many of his students tower above him). But he added that he thought his Black students were actually somewhat more wary of him, and less likely to listen to him as an authority figure. Maybe specifically because they knew he “got” them, and wouldn’t be fooled.

He said he thought what made him a popular teacher – and, more importantly to him, an effective one – was his mastery of his subjects (a Nuclear Engineering degree from MIT makes him quite qualified to teach middle-school math and high-school physics), his ability to break complicated material down into comprehensible chunks, his classroom control skills (modeled by him, in that he rarely raises his voice), his insistence on high standards for all, and his genuine fondness for his students. Is being Black a bonus? Maybe. But he doesn’t focus much on that.

And, as a parent, neither do I.  Yes, all things being equal, it’s wonderful when my children have competent and charismatic teachers of color. And, in a perfect world, it would be nice if they were regularly exposed to a variety of perspectives stemming from race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and more. But if forced to choose the single most important factor to my mind, I will always opt for a great teacher first, with everything else being secondary.

And, when looking for magic bullets, so should the Department of Education.

What do you think?

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