Minority Teachers Wanted

At anthropology meeting, education experts consider role of role models in improving high schools.
December 2, 2005

What can education departments do to produce teachers who will more effectively instruct black students?

It’s a difficult question, but Bobbie Coleman, a fellow in the chemistry department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has a simple answer. “We need to train more black teachers,” she said, at a session on multicultural teacher education at the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference Thursday.

Coleman, a black woman with decades of experience as a professional chemist who is at work on her Ph.D. in education at Amherst, said that there were far too few black students working toward education degrees.

“Colleges aren’t supporting” major efforts to groom black teachers, she said.

Coleman, who previously overhauled the chemistry curriculum at Los Angeles Trade Tech College, noted that, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress data of math proficiency, black students have made almost no progress in the last 15 years. One reason, she said, is that, according to data from the National Education Association,  only about 8 percent of public school teachers are black.

She said that part of the problem is simply a language block between white, middle class teachers, and many black students. “The kids speak the language of the urban poor,” Coleman said, adding that, if students can’t connect math to the professional world through the examples of their parents, then academics has to somehow be made relevant by teachers. She also said that there are some things that white teachers just generally don’t dare say to black students. “I can tell them to get off their behind and get it done,” she said.

In a famous scene in the movie Malcolm X, a young white woman asks Malcolm X what she can do to help the cause. “Nothing,” he replies brusquely. But, since all signs indicate that teaching will remain a profession dominated by white women, Coleman and the other presenters agreed that such an answer isn’t useful, and offered some ideas about preparing white teachers for diverse or predominantly minority classrooms.  

Michelle Y. Szpara, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Long Island University, teaches education master’s students. They are predominantly white, and middle or upper-middle class. Szpara said that Long Island is one of the nation’s most segregated suburban areas, and that her students generally plan to teach in schools exactly like the ones they graduated from.

“But that isn’t where the need is, and it isn’t where the jobs are,” Szpara said, adding that there’s a “magical wall” blocking her students from looking for jobs in Brooklyn and Queens.

Because New York State requires prospective teachers to do 10 hours of fieldwork, Szpara requires her students to do it in classrooms with students of different economic and ethnic backgrounds than they are used to. “In Long Island, they know there are malls you don’t shop in, and places you don’t hang out,” Szpara said. “I make them go there. You need to go to a place where you’re a minority.”

Judging from the journal entries that Szpara makes her students keep, even a measly 10 hours can spark some awakening for students who have never ventured outside their comfort-zone. “I remember the surprise and excitement,” read one entry, “upon finding out for myself that black people are regular people; they can be just like me.”

So how might any of this be applied to Hispanic students whose first language is Spanish? Eva Yerendé, an assistant professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas at Arlington, had her own version of Coleman’s theory. She said that college students who went through English as a second language programs make the best English as a second language teachers.

“There are a generation of them around,” she said. Education departments need to help them realize “that their life experience is the best fieldwork for teaching,” she added. She recalled one of her students who learned her native language of Spanish by reading the Bible at the age of four. The student could speak English, but got frustrated in high school “trying to read Romeo and Juliet and Greek mythology,” Yerendé said. So the woman dropped out, and soon got married and had children. Later, though, the woman earned an equivalency degree and found her way to college.

“A lot of them become mothers very early, which is always portrayed as negative in the media,” Yerendé said. “But this woman had to go to Head Start classes with her child, and learned even more about being a teacher.” Yerendé said that dropping a white woman in a predominantly Hispanic class usually doesn’t work, because “the teacher doesn’t understand the students.” She thinks that colleges need to reach out to Hispanic mothers, and let them know that “their life is the greatest teaching resource.”


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