On Monday, June 18, E4E-Boston Outreach Director, David Mendez testified at a City Council hearing regarding teacher diversity in Boston Public Schools. David shared experiences from his time in the classroom, as well as stories from E4E-Boston members Brian Gaines and Christina Pressley. David also submitted a full written testimony for Christina. Their testimonies highlighted the impact a lack of diversity has on students. While having this conversation is an important first step to addressing this issue, they reiterated that action must be taken to ensure that Boston is hiring and retaining teachers of color across BPS.
David Mendez Testimony
Good afternoon President Campbell and Honorable City Councilors. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak with you today. My name is David Mendez and I work as an Outreach Director for Educators for Excellence-Boston, a teacher-led nonprofit that is focused on elevating educators’ voices in policy conversations.
As a former educator, I am here today to share the impact that the lack of teacher diversity has on both students and teachers. When I was a classroom teacher, I often felt isolated. Not only was I the only male teacher of color in my building, I was also the only person who spoke another language other than English despite 90 percent of the school’s student population being Hispanic. I was often tasked with duties that pulled me away from my own classroom and handed responsibilities that my white colleagues did not have, such as serving as a translator, go-to disciplinarian, and “diversity expert.”
I was often interrupted during my lessons to translate for disciplinary meetings or translate documents for parents. Very rarely did these extra jobs involve my own students, and as a result they suffered from the compromised learning time. Furthermore, my colleagues would often send their students to my classroom when their students acted up because I “could relate to them,” often finding out that many of the disciplinary issues were not behavioral but rooted in cultural misunderstandings.
I would then have to take time during my planning periods to talk to my colleagues about the incidents and hope they understood their cultural biases without creating a hostile relationship with them. Not only did this take up planning time that I could have been using for students, I was also put in an exhausting position to have to teach my colleagues about their own biases. These additional expectations and roles are a tax that teachers of color often pay, contributing to higher rates of attrition among teachers of color. A study by the University of Pennsylvania found that the turnover rate for teachers of color was 24 percent higher than it was for white teachers.
What are we telling our black and brown students when they go through our education system only having had maybe one teacher of color? What message does it send when our high school graduates receive their diplomas from all white school leaders? My students looked up to me because they saw themselves in me and our shared experiences, skin color, and cultural background. I was proof that they could one day be successful.
There are several ways that a lack of teacher diversity can have a negative impact on students. A lack of cultural understanding and culturally-responsive teaching can lead to instruction that fails to connect with students. A teaching staff that is predominantly white may have misconceptions about students of color and their behavior, which can lead them to impose discipline measures that are unnecessarily harsh. They may also have lowered academic expectations for their students of color, leading to lower standardized test scores and grades.
I am not alone in my experiences. Over the past month, Educators for Excellence visited 23 BPS schools to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Month and to hear from educators about their policy concerns. At 12 schools, teachers highlighted staff diversity as an issue that should be addressed through policy change. This is came as no surprise as across the district we face a huge diversity gap between our students and our educators. Currently, 86 percent of students in BPS are students of color, whereas only 39 percent of teachers identify as people of color. Additionally, 45 percent of students speak a home language other than English. When we lack in staff diversity, we also lack the language diversity necessary to support students and families.
Our teachers are currently hard at work finishing out the school year with their students, so they are unable to share their experiences in person today. I will instead speak on their behalf and hopefully provide insight into how staff diversity impacts the classroom.
Christina Pressley, who is currently a teacher at the Mattapan Early Elementary School, asked us to share the following thoughts about what increased staff diversity could achieve:
“There are benefits to teacher diversity beyond allowing students of color to see someone who looks like them. It is deeper than that. A school of diverse people means students get exposed to others. Teachers who are linguistically diverse, teachers who are racially diverse, teachers who grew up the same as the students and who grew up differently. We need to purposefully create a balance in our schools.”
I would also like to present thoughts from Brian Gaines, a teacher at the Hurley K-8, who had this to say about teacher diversity:
“There is no one size fits all in urban education. Our students come from many different cultures and experiences and these differences play a large role in how they learn. Some of these differences, like language, skin color, or gender may seem obvious at first. But it is much more complicated than that. True understanding comes from shared experiences. Our students need access to teachers who can understand and relate to what they are going through and have themselves successfully navigated these challenges. Diverse students have diverse needs that are best met by diverse teachers.”
It is heartening that the Boston City Council is holding a hearing to examine the failure of institutions to address the staggering lack of teacher diversity in Boston Public Schools. I hope that the testimony presented today is valued and used to inform real action on this issue. We cannot afford to simply talk about this issue any longer; we need to see policy solutions that will move us toward a more diverse and equitable teaching staff in Boston Public Schools. Thank you for your time.
Christina Pressley - Teacher at Mattapan Early Elementary School
My name is Christina Pressley and I am a teacher at the Mattapan Early Elementary School. Thank you for allowing me to speak on the importance of addressing the lack of teacher diversity in Boston Public Schools.
I used to wake up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to get dressed and head out the door during my school years. I caught the bus to attend Cambridge Public Schools. I was bussed out of my neighborhood because my community schools lacked resources and my parents didn't feel that my local school could provide me with the best education. While I loved my new teachers, many of whom I credit for where I am today, I know I would have benefited from a more diverse group of educators.
The benefits of teacher diversity go beyond students of color seeing someone who looks like them. A school with diverse adults means students get exposed to others who may be different than them. Teachers who are linguistically diverse, teachers who are racially diverse, teachers who grew up the same as the students and who grew up differently all bring essential diversity to a students’ educational experience.
Increased teacher diversity should also not be limited to what we traditionally think of as diverse schools. We need to celebrate ALL cultures no matter who is in our classroom. You can still have Latino History Month even if there are no Latino children in the classroom. I say this because that same mindset needs to be applied to hiring teachers. Predominantly white schools should also be included in efforts to hire more teachers of color.
Once hired, we need to retain our teachers of color, not burn them out and make it difficult for them to find new roles within the district. I am an African American woman with a master’s degree. I studied both early childhood education and special education. I have studied in two Latin American countries. Despite my extensive qualifications, this year alone I have been on 17 job interviews and will ultimately be teaching in a completely different school district next year. It should not be so difficult for teachers of color, especially ones who are more than qualified, to find work in Boston Public Schools.
I think one main suggestion that would begin to increase teacher diversity in Boston Public Schools is to include interview questions like ”what can you bring to our community as well as our school?” and “what neighborhoods did you receive your education in?” Simple changes like this can be implemented immediately, and without added expense. This would ensure that schools have the opportunity to hire teachers who care about the community and know the challenges it faces.
I urge the Boston City Council to act on this issue, and do whatever they can to address the lack of teacher diversity in Boston Public Schools. Thank you for your time.