March 30, 2016

How we can say to students: "I see you. You are welcome here. I believe in you."

By Paul Collier

On March 14th, Minnesota’s state teacher union produced a report that calls for action on an issue that hits home for me as a teacher of color: increasing teacher diversity in our state.

For the past eighteen years I’ve worked with urban youth; first in enrichment classes and camps, and now as a school social worker. More than disappointed about educational inequities in Minnesota, I feel downright embarrassed about the racial opportunity gaps for students in our state.

Becoming an educator means becoming a walking example of giving back to our community, and as a school social worker, that is what I try to do each and every day. I feel lucky that I was born to a mother who taught for 39 years, who was able to send me to the school of her choice, and who pushed me to do well. But high-quality urban education shouldn’t just be available to the lucky. This is why I choose to give back.

What it takes to be an educator of color in Minnesota is an uphill battle. The feeling of racial isolation is real, and the cultural awareness and level of sensitivity among my colleagues can be, at times, astonishing. I have heard the “N word” spoken by a colleague at a staff meeting. I have heard students of color being referred to as “colored,” “criminal” or even “dumb.”  As a black male of larger stature, I’m always cognizant and calculating of how I may be seen or perceived. Every day, I am hyper-vigilant at work.

Of course, ignorance doesn’t just impact adults. For our students of color, the belief gap is alive and well. 

Of course, ignorance doesn’t just impact adults. For our students of color, the belief gap is alive and well. Our personal beliefs about a student’s potential are influenced by his or her race, class, and gender—and all of it matters.

Fortunately, both Minnesota and national efforts are already underway to elevate this important issue. At the same time, we need multiple approaches to recruit, retain, and support educators and other school staff of color. The lack of teacher diversity is not a problem that can be solved with a single campaign or legislative session, or even with years of professional development on cultural competency.

That’s why I’m working with a group of teachers to advocate for a competitive public grant program to recruit more candidates of color to become Minnesota teachers.  This funding could make the innovative, high-quality alternative and non-conventional programs  we need a reality. We want this bipartisan bill to aid the state in recognizing and replicating practices of teacher preparation programs that excel in preparing teachers from diverse backgrounds.

We also want to require institutions to disaggregate certain indicators on the teacher preparation report card by race, including: satisfaction, 4-year graduation, licensure attainment, and employment rates so we can empower candidates of color to select an institution based on its record of success in preparing prospective teachers to attain licensure and secure employment.

I’m calling on my Minnesota state legislators to pass HF3340 and SF3003 as a small but important step toward increasing diversity. But what I want even more is for my students to enter our school each day and see faces of many shades and colors that say to them “I see you. You’re welcome here. I believe in you.”

Paul Collier has worked with youth for 18 years. He is currently a school social worker for the Minneapolis Public Schools, a member of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Minnesota.