On Diversity in Education
Leton Hall is a sixth grade science teacher at Pelham Gardens Middle School. In this conversation with E4E-New York Outreach Director Andrea Clay, Leton shares his thoughts on diversity in education.
Andrea Clay: Why did you choose a career in education?
Leton Hall: When I was growing up in the Bronx, I had many teachers who didn’t seem like they had my best interest in mind. I found myself wanting to be a teacher in the Bronx because since I grew up here, I knew that I would have a unique perspective on my students and that I wouldn’t give up on them.
AC: What was your journey to becoming a teacher?
LH: Well, I wasn’t the best student in school. Not because I wasn’t able to do it but because I wasn’t very motivated. It took me until college to realize I should work hard for good grades. Maybe this was because I didn’t have mentors or people to tell me what I needed to do before college. This led me to teach because I felt it was important to be a role model for students, to show them what they need to do to be successful, and to do so early before they made some of the same mistakes I made.
AC: You recently read the Education Trust diversity report, See Our Truth. What were your initial thoughts?
LH: I knew that the education system doesn’t have a lot of people of color in it but I didn’t understand why that was the case. I thought leaders would understand that we need to hire more diverse teaching candidates and reduce teacher turnover, but both a lack of teacher diversity and retention is still a huge issue. Many of the recommendations were surprising because they seemed so commonsense. I couldn’t believe we weren’t already doing them. For example, one recommendation was that principals need implicit bias training to ensure unconscious biases do not affect staff hires. I’m not surprised principals largely lack this training, but at the same time I am troubled that this issues persists.
I also found it interesting to see just how little access students have to teachers of color. The report found that 10 percent of Black and Latino students attend schools where there are no Black or Latino teachers. White students also lack access to the benefits of a diverse teacher workforce, where 48 percent of white students attend schools without a Black of Latino teacher.
AC: What is the value of diversity in schools?
LH: It is important for students to see people who look like them in leadership positions. Seeing people of color as teachers or principals helps students understand that they can aspire to something great. Teachers with similar backgrounds to their students are also able to relate to their experiences.
For example, I remember I had a student whose mother left him when he was a kid so he had anger issues. When I had him in class I was able to adjust how I held him accountable because I knew his situation and we were able to foster a great relationship. This wasn’t true in other classes. He got in trouble a lot. Got detention a lot. Got phone calls home. Through our relationship we were able to solve a lot of problems on the spot before they escalated.
AC: You are a part of NYC Men Teach. Can you tell me a little about that program and your involvement?
LH: NYC Men Teach is trying to improve teacher diversity by finding alternative pathways for people of color to get into teaching. We also mentor teacher candidates to improve retention and support. This is so important because sometimes teachers of color come into schools but don’t stay long. Because we provide mentoring our teachers of color have a support system other than their school-based mentor to help them with some of the challenges that come with being a teacher of color.
As far as my involvement, I’m a mentor and I’ve spoken at various events NYC Men Teach has hosted. I‘ve also had conversations with decision-makers within the DOE that have pushed my thinking on certain policy issues and allowed me to access support.
AC: What is one thing NYC schools should do differently?
LH: I wish school boards were better at onboarding teachers into the communities where they are working so teachers would know more about the issues the community is facing and ways they can help. And by understanding their community teachers can understand their students a little better. This would help with retention and hiring too because some people leave the profession because they don’t understand their students and community. People also need to understand that the community brings benefits and the students come with prior knowledge and experiences that are important to the classroom. If teachers knew more about their school’s community they would better understand how to teach their students using the experiences students are already bringing.
AC: What is your biggest hope for NYC schools as it relates to school diversity?
LH: That we’ll have more of it. That we’ll have more teachers of color.