Chalk Talk: MacArthur Cheek
The Urgency of Diversifying our Teacher Workforce
High school social studies teacher MacArthur Cheek is reminded daily that his decision to become a teacher was the right choice. In a school where 46% of the population are students of color, MacArthur is the only black teacher.
For nearly half of the student body at his school, MacArthur is the only teacher that shares their racial or ethnic identity. And this might be one of the better situations. A recent study found that 40% of public schools across our country do not have a single teacher of color on staff, even though students of color make up more than half of all public school students.
These students are never far from MacArthur’s mind.
“A while back, some suburban students came to visit our school. One of the students rushed up to tell me she loved my hair because I had dreads and so did she,” said MacArthur. “She probably hadn't seen many, if any, teachers who looked like her before.”
This lack of diversity in the teacher workforce isn’t just appalling, it’s hurting our students.
Time and again, research has shown that teachers are the most important in-school factor in student achievement. The data also shows that all students, no matter their race, benefit when they have a diverse set of teachers at the front of their classrooms. Teachers of color are more likely to set higher expectations for students of color, provide culturally relevant teaching, develop trusting relationships with students, and be able to act as cultural brokers.
Yet, our teacher workforce remains considerably less racially and ethnically diverse than our student population – as well as the nation as a whole.
"The solution is pretty obvious, we need more teachers of color," said MacArthur. "But there are significant obstacles that keep us out of the classroom, like a lack of recruitment from teacher preparation programs, bias in the standardized testing and hiring processes, low salaries, and unaffordable housing in the communities in which we teach.”
Educators, like MacArthur, aren’t sitting on the sidelines waiting for someone else to take on these challenges. They are working furiously to remove the obstacles and add some much-needed diversity to our teacher workforce.
In Connecticut, a group of MacArthur’s fellow E4E members released a comprehensive policy paper with specific recommendations to improve teacher diversity while better-supporting students of color and encouraging them to pursue teaching as a career. E4E members in Connecticut have also been the champions of a bill that would empower cities to pilot affordable housing opportunities so teachers can live in the communities where they work. The bill has already passed the House and is now in the Senate! In Minneapolis and Chicago, E4E Members inspired policies to better recruit and retain teachers of color, which led to important and lasting changes in their cities.
“Tearing down the obstacles that are blocking people of color from becoming teachers is crucial. It needed to happen yesterday,” said MacArthur. “Last year as I was teaching a lesson on the 13th and 15th amendments, I asked the class if they knew anyone who went to jail. No hands went up. Then I told them about my own father being incarcerated and a bunch of their hands shot up in the air. This shared experience enables me to have a much more meaningful conversation with my students about the material and how it connects to our lives. Every single student in our country deserves this experience.”
Telling real stories about the challenges students and teachers face is the best way to bring attention to the teacher diversity crisis. But that only works if people hear them.