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Viewpoint by a Teacher "Of Color"

May 15, 2009 By Kimberly Colbert, Fellow

Part 2 of 2 (read part 2)

It seems that I am a hot commodity.  I am person of color who teaches.  My ethnicity encompasses not one, but two backgrounds: Asian and African American.  As our elected policy makers debate important issues like relaxing teacher preparation standards -- in part to get more minority teachers into education -- they are not considering one important fact: not everyone can teach.

Any success I have had in the classroom is the result of rigorous graduate education training and mentoring that prepared me for the academic challenges I face every day. That education did not end on the bright spring day in May 1995 when I received my MAT.  My educational foundation continues to be further reinforced by professional development so I remain current on best practices. If I am a good teacher it is not because I am a "natural."  If I can reach students of color, it is not merely because I too am a person of color. The relevance of my teaching for all students is contingent on a combination of reflection, education, and continuous training.

This training began with student teaching. One of the most critical experiences for a pre-service teacher is the practicum.  In education circles, there is constant discussion about the need to lengthen practice teaching, and for good reason.  Often, this is the first long-term experience in a classroom setting.  It is the first time to practice educational theory.  It is the first test of one's beliefs and philosophy of education, all of which takes place under the full-time supervision of an experienced, master teacher.

The fact is, one can't teach by osmosis, blind intuition or virtue of her or his ethnic background. Teaching is a profession not unlike medicine in that requires a specific course of study that requires supervised pre-licensure practice.  Mentoring is not enough.  Would you go to a doctor who shared the same ethnic background, but who was not board certified and current in the medical arts? Just as doctors are not merely scientists, teachers are not just content experts whose job it is to purvey information.  Teaching is an art and a science that requires an understanding of learning styles, brain development, differentiation of instruction, classroom management and student engagement to name a just a few criterion.

The National Education Association has identified a number of effective instructional strategies that competent teachers employ.  The list includes: maintaining high standards for all students by providing a rigorous curriculum; understanding and capitalizing on students' diverse cultures; examining their [own] expectations, beliefs, and practices through the equity lens; serving as "first responders" in identifying students who need additional instructional support; participating in professional development programs that provide them with strategies for working with students and their families who are not achieving success. An individual who has not completed an accredited licensure program does not have the capacity to fulfill these requirements and certainly can't learn them through on the job training.

And what about the most important factor in all this - the students?  How offensive it is to insinuate that students of color would demand less than well-trained, licensed professionals delivering curriculum. What does this mean in terms of teaching European American kids?  Although my students come from diverse backgrounds, the majority are white.  If my ethnicity makes me qualified to teach students of color, am I less qualified to teach white students?  There is little discussion about bringing alternative teacher programs to white students.  Why? What kind of teacher do white students affected by the achievement gap deserve?  Please let us not use minority kids as a convenient excuse for allowing substandard teaching.  An untrained person standing in front of a class is a role model, not a teacher.

Is it important to have ethnic minority teachers in the classroom? Absolutely.  There are great, immeasurable benefits for students from every ethnicity to see someone who looks like them in front of a class, but to imply that likeness is a major factor or the only factor in learning is not only naive, it is insulting.  It offhandedly dismisses the hard work, academic and financial commitment (because we sure aren't in it for the money) it takes for people like me to become an educator.  It devalues the most important thing we offer students, a professional proficiency based in the very thing we deliver - education.

The achievement gap is not new news.  It has been around from the time this country was formed.  It began in our refusal to equally educate all kids regardless of ethnicity and socio-economic background.  It is in the forefront now more than ever probably because probably the ONE good thing about NCLB is that it has forced us to look at how we educate all kids.  Relaxing standards flies in the face of current discourse about the importance of teacher quality.  Relaxing standards is a setback.

Atonement for past mistakes should have taken place a long time ago.  Since it hasn't, reform must begin the right way.  If we are to use affirmative involvement plans to bring in teachers of color, lets give schools the funds to retain the educators of color they already have.  Many of these individuals are the first ones let go during cuts.  Let's make college affordable and programs accessible for non-traditional students who want to enter the profession. How about a living wage for Education Support Professionals who might be interested in becoming teachers so they can afford to go to work and go to school. Make college programs affordable so we can attract students to the study of education.  Why not pass legislation that will provide salaries that attract ethnic minority people to the profession?

Finally, help organizations that understand the problem and are currently working to solve it without sacrificing standards. Education Minnesota is currently holding focus groups with students on the subject of recruiting and retaining minority educators.  They're asking kids both what they need as students and if they would be interested in carrying the mantle for those of us currently in the profession.  Funding for the effort comes from the National Education Association, which has a long history of inclusion.  If state policy makers want to help, why not work with these group?  There is no need to reinvent the wheel, let alone make a substandard new model.  The resources are at our fingertips.  Let us them.

There is no magic pill for student achievement. We need to engage them and that takes hard work and every tool upon which we can lay our hands. We need more training, not less.

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