Black man looking at mirror fragment

For Students of Color, Representation Matters, So Let’s Increase It

The current global pandemic has challenged the concept of America’s exceptionalism. As we struggle with COVID-19, we are also uncomfortably grappling with the vestiges of slavery and economic uncertainty. In order to transform our country for the better we must reflect on the past, collectively and as individuals, to forge our future.

As a child, I spent most of my days in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing complex with my maternal grandmother. She would make excuses for why she handed me the mail on a daily basis. These started with her arthritis; “Old Arthur” she would call it. But I knew “Old Arthur” never flared up when she needed to aim something in my direction when I was misbehaving. Later, it was supposedly a result of her outdated eyeglass prescription even though her accuracy rarely, if ever, failed.

Eventually I realized that my grandmother, who was originally from Walls, Mississippi, couldn’t read. This experience crystallized for me the stories of past struggles for African Americans in the United States and inspired in me a passion for the education of others. 

At Edward Jenner, my neighborhood school, there were very few positive male role models for me to interact with daily. Then, in 8th grade, I met Mr. Moore. He was a robust, jovial Morehouse graduate whose personality could light up an entire room.

With the help of a support system which included Mr. Moore, I was able to escape the limitations of my neighborhood by going to Whitney M. Magnet High School. There, I met Mr. Murff, a Black geometry teacher and Mr. Lee, an Asian Economics teacher who  encouraged me to “help my people” on my last day attending his class.  

For a Black male student in the inner city, these experiences were formative. They taught me about the importance and the benefits of having a teacher who understands your culture and models your role in society. I learned that relationship-building and racial identity development were just as important for students as acquiring the content knowledge.

There is substantial research on the positive effect that Black teachers have on Black students. I know from my own experience that students are motivated when they see someone like them standing in front of the classroom, possessing intellectual authority. 

Overall, students of color comprise over 52% of the student population in Illinois school districts. There are roughly 130, 000 teachers in Illinois. Of that number, over 80% are White and approximately 5.9% are Black. The percentage of Hispanic teachers is only slightly better, hovering at just about 6.7%. 

As an African American male teacher, I represent the silent minority, the 2% of our nation’s educators rarely seen or heard. By contrast, the demographic of students in Chicago Public Schools is 90% students of color. This means that many minority students spent the year in classrooms without qualified teachers who look like them. This is problematic not only in Chicago but also in Illinois’ rural communities. 

How do we solve this problem?  We can increase the number of teachers of color by evaluating and improving upon our current recruitment practices and by advocating for more legislation that reduces barriers to gaining a teacher license as well as an allowance of reciprocity for out-of-state educators who seek to teach here in Illinois. 

Our push for diversity could be aided by initiatives that elevate the profession’s status. That could attract talented individuals outside of the teaching ranks to consider a career change, especially in order to fill hard-to-staff positions in science and math. We can also invest in programs that attract nontraditional teachers to address the dearth of special education, Bilingual/ESL  and career and technical educators (CTE). Alternative certification  programs provide an excellent nontraditional licensure option. They allow school districts opportunities to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in their teaching ranks.

We can also invest more in promotional campaigns and programs that inspire young minority students to enter the profession, focusing on students as early as high school. If high school students could work as teacher assistants, in exchange for earning credits or a small stipend, that could go a long way to promote both a sense of social responsibility and a career in education. Promoting a more diverse teaching force to match the shifts in student population demographics will help to promote a more equitable education system for all students here in Illinois. 

After almost two decades of teaching, I am mindful of our system’s possibilities and shortcomings. I have personally benefited from a quality public education, but I also know that the system can be drastically improved to better address the needs of those most vulnerable. I believe in the words of Frederick Douglass, ”It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”  In these most uncertain times, it’s unquestionable that there needs to be a stronger commitment to recruit and retain more teachers of color to meet the diverse cultural, linguistic, academic, and social needs of Illinois’ heterogeneous population of students now, more than ever.

Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash.

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Victor Idowu

Victor Idowu is a math instructor at Percy L. Julian High School in Chicago Public Schools and a 2019-20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.

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