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They can’t be us if they can’t see us

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Growing up in a neighborhood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I struggled to find positive African-American men. Drug use, alcoholism, and crime were commonplace, and many grown men who could have served as teachers ended up in prison instead, leaving me to raise a village of women who did the best they could. Then I met Roger Hines, a black elementary school teacher who would change my life forever. I’ve never seen a black person work in a school before, except for security and janitors. A black man in a powerful and prestigious position was fascinating. At first I was shocked because I never had a teacher like me. How did he get here? Was he a replacement? Maybe he was a security guard in a suit? He was not my teacher, but his presence alone was enough to make me believe in the dream of becoming a black teacher. As I walked down the white ceramic tiled corridors of my school, I felt like I was looking into a mirror that showed me my future self.

After I left elementary school and Mr. Hines was no longer there to idolize me, 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 curator diversity. Just as I began to question 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 arts of project-based learning, social-emotional learning, and culturally sensitive teaching decades before they gained wider acceptance in the American education system. He understood that the purpose of education is to empower students to be agents of change, and that education should be tailored so that all students can succeed. Mr. Jones rekindled my desire to become an educator and to be the next role model for students of color in the 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. Studies found that teachers of color were more likely to demonstrate culturally responsive practices and thinking, including building relationships with families and believing that all students can learn. Research continues to show the positive impact of teachers of color on the academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes of students of all races. However, teachers of color are often assigned to work in high-poverty areas with large numbers of students of color, where they often have fewer resources and less 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, benefit from teachers like Mr. Hines, Mr. Jones, and me.

Roger Hines, left, and Frederick Jones

At the state level, our legislators must implement policies to support the hiring, retention, and professional development of teachers of color. Pennsylvania Senate Bill 99, supported by Senator Vincent Hughes and Senator Ryan Aument, create pathways to teaching underrepresented youth, provide funding for teacher training programs to diversify the workforce, and remove barriers to certification that disproportionately affect teachers of color.

At the school level, administrators must ensure representation at all levels. Teachers of color should not be forced, traumatized or traumatized to act as disciplinarians for students of color. Teachers of color should be called upon as experts to lead professional development or coach peers in culturally responsive learning and relationship building. Teachers of color must be included on task forces responsible for changing disciplinary policies in schools and districts that disproportionately punish students of color and promote conveyor belt from school to prison.

If we want to strengthen the very fabric of American democracy, we must put our resources into it repairing the leaking teacher pipeline, beginning with the hiring, retention, and professional development of educators of color. We cannot create an education system that reflects the nation of students we serve until the students we serve see an education system that reflects them.

Darrell Burns teaches 9th grade English and Public Speaking at Harrisburg High School: John Harris Campus. He is a 2021-2022 Pennsylvania Teach Plus Policy Fellow.

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