It’s a persistent problem in schools across Indianapolis, the state, and the nation: Too few teachers look like their students.
America’s teaching force is disproportionately white and female, even in districts like Indianapolis Public Schools, where just under half of students are black, nearly a third are Hispanic, and about one-fifth are white.
At the annual conference Thursday of the teacher training and advocacy group TNTP, I moderated a panel on addressing the systemic barriers and unconscious biases that educators of color face — from their own formative school years, through college and certification, and into the classroom.
The dynamic group of four panelists — an equity expert, a politician, a school leader, and an administrator — offered thoughts on dismantling the structural barriers that many educators face, with the goal of fostering more inclusive classrooms for both teachers and students.
From his experience as the principal of Camden High School in New Jersey, Alex Jones underscored the importance of students having teachers who come from backgrounds similar to their own.
“One of my coworkers coined a phrase where he said, ‘We’re looking for this Wakanda factor. … You know, when people see “Black Panther,” now students believe they can do these great things that we saw as part of Wakandan society as things that people of color can achieve,’” Jones said. “So, we want to make sure we’re putting people in front of our students that our students can say, ‘This is someone who has had similar experiences to me, this is someone who I can relate and connect to, and this is someone I can see myself growing up and being like.’”
Here are three other tips, tools, and takeaways from the discussion.
Systemic problems require systemic changes
At the start of the panel, which brought together a few dozen educators from across the country, Aleesia Johnson, deputy superintendent for academics at Indianapolis Public Schools, explained: “If you see a lake full of dead fish, you’re not going to say, ‘What’s wrong with the fish?’ You’re going to say, ‘What happened in this lake that all our fish are dying?’”
And yet in education, Johnson said, “we turn to ‘fish-fixing’ versus seeing systemically what’s wrong with our lake, and what do we need to do to fix the lake that our fish are in.”
The metaphor comes from longtime district educator Pat Payne, who runs IPS’ Racial Equity Institute to train schools on racial biases.
Be a school that embraces diversity
Tiffany Kyser, associate director of engagement and partnerships at the Great Lakes Equity Center, offered tips for creating more inclusive schools, such as using people-first language. Instead of “English-language learners,” for example, she said educators could refer to such students as “emerging multilingual students.” Different cultures and native tongues can be seen as assets, rather than deficits, she said.
But while the value of diversity might be easy to understand, Kyser said recruitment and retention of educators of color can be a one-way street if schools don’t often ask themselves: “Are you actually ready to receive educators of difference?”
People of color “should not be ornamentation,” Kyser said. “When you introduce people to your organization, your organization is going to change. From a strategic standpoint, is your organization ready to be malleable? To go to a place of deferring judgment, so that it can reimagine who it’s going to be?”
Take on the “-isms”
Equity needs to be central to the work that educators are doing, the panelists all pointed out — and to the community at large.
Johnson, the IPS deputy superintendent, acknowledged how easy it is, in the bustle of the school year, not to be as thoughtful or intentional enough about racial equity.
“It’s very easy to think about your equity work not as the foundation of the work, but a body of work that sits over here that I can check the box on,” she explained.
For her part, Kyser said educators need to confront racism — and other “isms” — head-on.
“‘Bias’ has now become a safe word to get around using other terms, like racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. So we have to name it if we’re going to redress racism,” she said. “We have to name it in a loving way. There are other factors at play where you don’t want to shut people down — you want to honor where people are, but you also don’t want to dismiss and excuse that often people who are using coded language are also people who are benefitting from more and more types of privilege.”
Blake Johnson, an Indianapolis city councilman, said lawmakers rarely talk about systemic racism and implicit bias, so they often don’t focus on how to change policies that create structural barriers.
“In the policy world, these conversations don’t happen very often,” he said.