Sunday, February 03, 2013

How About the Race and Ethnicity of Teachers?

Now I'm going to broach a subject that not many are comfortable discussing but as the saying goes, "out of the mouths of babes." Kids are way more honest in their assessment of life and they are not caught up on what is politically correct. As many parents know, that can be a two edged sword. On one hand you appreciate your child's candid innocence and on the other hand, others may not.

Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver

We had just dropped off Seth at school a few weeks ago and I asked my daughter Miranda a question. Do you think that Seth's teachers at Jefferson understand him better than his teachers at Oak Forest because they are African American?

Miranda, in her 11 year old innocence responded that in all her years at Oak Forest she had only had one minority teacher, her 5th grade teacher who is African American. Coincidentally that was her favorite teacher. Not coincidentally her second favorite teacher and a close tie was her third grade teacher, and that teacher and her 5th grade teacher are very good friends. (Birds of a feather.)

I pondered on what Miranda had said. She felt like the African American teacher was the best teacher and the most understanding of all her teachers. Was this because as a minority this teacher had a different point of view or understanding of all her students?

I immediately thought of an interview with Samuel Jackson that I read in American Way magazine a few years ago. He was explaining why he could play a character that was originally written for a white man and he said that the reason he could do this was because as a black man he had learned how to act like a white man. As a Hispanic woman in a majority white workplace I could relate to what he was saying.

Could it be that minority teachers find it easier to relate to different ethnicities and backgrounds because they themselves come from a different culture and have learned to be adapt to different situations?

Did the race of his teachers play a role in Seth doing better at Jefferson and having his needs addressed? Did gender also play a role? His principal and assistant principal are white, but they are men, which also offers a different point of view. Plus these men are working in a lower income school with more special education needs and thus have more experience in that area. (I have a whole thesis on gender differences in communication too.)

I researched this question and I found several articles that have been written on the subject. One article entitled "How Race Matters in the Classroom" said, "In a perfect world, the race of a teacher would matter no more than the race of a physician. However, research evidence suggests that cultural differences between teachers and students may account for key differences between the schooling experiences of black and white students."

Yes, this article is talking specifically about black and white but it's the same situation with Hispanic students. There are cultural differences that African American teachers can identify with because they too are minorities. (A good example of the similarities in our culture and our ideals was this last presidential election. The Republicans were floored that so many Hispanics voted for Obama. They still don't get it, but that's a whole different subject for another day.)

I think about the movie Stand and Deliver and the students of Garfield High School. Their Anglo teachers did not have the same expectations of the students that Escalante had when he started teaching them advanced math.

I don't think that Hispanic children should only have Hispanic teachers or that African American students should only have African American teachers. But I don't think that they should have mostly white teachers.

I chose Oak Forest Elementary as my first choice school for Vanguard when Miranda was going to Kindergarten because I thought the school had the same diversity that I had when I went to Waltrip High School in the same neighborhood. This was important to me because I wanted for my children to experience all races and ethnicities. I believed that this would give them a real life experience. Waltrip had both a diverse student body and a great mix of black and white teachers. (Although my best friend and I could not remember one Hispanic teacher.)

I could have chosen Roosevelt Vanguard as my first choice school for elementary and saved myself the drive, but I knew that the school was something like 90% Hispanic. We're already Hispanic, she would have had that experience by virtue of being Hispanic. For the same reason I chose a mostly African American congregation over the one we were actually zoned to because I wanted for the children to have a diverse experience.

I feel the same way about teachers. In a perfect world our teachers should reflect the same diversity of their classrooms but sadly they don't. I think it's important that the children experience all races and ethnicities not only with their peers, but also with their educators.

Writer Victor Landa brings up some important points in his article "Wanted: More Good Latino Teachers." Yes, what we need are really "good, committed, creative teachers" but we also need more Latino teachers in HISD, where 62% of the students are Hispanic. Our teachers need to reflect the diversity of our school district, city, state and our country.

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