Why teacher diversity matters

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I’ve written recently about implicit bias and how it interferes with delivering a great education to every student. One other path to pursue when addressing implicit bias is diversifying the teacher work force.

Let’s return once more to Esther Quintero at the Shanker Institute’s blog, who has a new piece up explaining the benefits of a diverse teaching force in counteracting subtle biases and microaggressions that undermine the work of schools. She argues that a more diverse teacher corps will change the context of school-as-workplace for all teachers. This contextual shift can help disrupt the implicit biases and unconscious stereotypes that homogenous environments can perpetuate.

For students and teachers alike, greater variation in who teaches — and in who teaches what grades and subjects — broadens everyone’s subconscious understanding of who school is “for” and who is “good at school.” Basically, representation (who we see as teachers) informs often subconscious beliefs about roles and capabilities (who we think of as good or bad at school). Those beliefs then guide our actions (who is likely to try hardest at school, who is going to pursue teaching as a career).

Quintero offers the example of women in science and engineering, and explains how underrepresentation guides stereotypes and believes — both conscious and unconscious — about women’s capability and suitability. This then keeps women out of science, perpetuating the underrepresentation and the biases.

Teaching is obviously a different matter. In Minnesota, for example, over 95% of teachers are white. Even the districts with the most diverse teaching forces are over 80% white, and those districts are often serving the most diverse student populations in the state. At the elementary level in particular, the teaching force is not just overwhelmingly white, but also overwhelmingly female. At many high schools, on the other hand, math and science teaching is dominated by men. Each of these forms of homogeneity impacts students and teachers, and not for the better.

Diversifying the teaching force is not a panacea for bias and issues of cultural competence. Especially as schools serve an increasingly diverse student population, teachers need to be able to work productively with students from many different backgrounds. Still, working to ensure that all students see good teachers who look like them at multiple points throughout their K-12 career should be one of our priorities.