Students Benefit from a Diverse Teaching Staff

Teachers & Principals | 05/18/2021

Dr. Aaron Griffen
Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at DSST Public Schools

Teacher diversity is important to me for a different reason than a lot of other people in my field. There is research that shows that all students benefit from a diverse teaching staff — period. All students benefit from a diverse leadership staff — period. When I say all students, that means not just Black and Brown students, but also Asian American students, white students, students with special needs, students who are second language learners, LGBTQIA students. All of them benefit from a diverse teaching staff.

There’s a wealth of research that points to the increased likelihood of all students going to college when they have teachers who are specifically African American and Hispanic. There is also research that stipulates how important it is for Black students to see Black teachers, again making it more likely that students go to college.

Teacher diversity is important; however, I caution us to think that in order to see the benefits of a diverse teaching staff, we need race matching. Race matching is where you have Black teachers for Black students and/or Hispanic teachers for Hispanic students. Because when we do that without the necessary development and training, while minimizing those teachers’ natural teaching skills, ability and cultural responsiveness, then we’re doing a huge disservice. If we place a Black teacher in front of Black children, but that Black teacher is not provided the agency or the opportunity to teach to their unique cultural style, you are essentially whitewashing that teacher. You can only use Piaget. You can only use Vygotsky. You can only use Dewey. You can only use Montessori…But that teacher isn’t allowed to implement Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings Dr. Gay, Dr. Hammond, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, bell Hooks, nor Carter G. Woodson, or Freire. They aren’t permitted to use those frameworks, but they can only use styles grounded in European cultural mannerism and even Western mannerisms. So yes, diversity is important, not only for representation, but for a diversity of skills and experiences.

It’s also important to have diversity of cultural perspective. Children benefit from having multiple cultural perspectives in the classroom. Over 85 percent of our teaching force is white, over 80 percent is white women. If that is the only culture they’re experiencing, that’s going to be problematic. For example, we perpetuate harm by indoctrinating an oppressive culture where Asian Americans can only be the Model Minority to be accepted by their white peers. It’s about giving students multiple experiences throughout their educational experience so that when they graduate from our schools and go on to college or into the job market, they have had experiences with multiple cultures and lived experiences versus a monocultural perspective.

It is also critical to build a diverse teacher workforce because we are trying to embed cultural responsiveness inside our curriculum via representation of multiple contributions. We’re in a time in our country where children and communities are advocating for curriculums to be more diverse and represent multiple perspectives. There are people saying, “No, we need to save the curriculum we have because it reflects the founding of our nation and it’s always worked.” Well, it hasn’t worked for all children, including all white children. So, if we’re going to diversify our curriculum culturally, socially and historically, then our teaching force must be diverse. That cultural fund of knowledge, those mannerisms, that teaching style, that communication style, that movement style that diverse perspectives bring — that will be matched from a diverse curriculum, the multi-cultural, the culturally-responsive, culturally-relevant, trauma informed, the anti-racist curriculum that people are fighting for.

You’ve got have a diverse teaching staff because you need people who are well versed in those specific frameworks, still while training other teachers in those frameworks. That doesn’t mean we bring in teachers to diversify a school environment and only those teachers are expected to teach that way — all teachers should be teaching that way. And that’s why diversity is so important because now you have teachers who can partner with other teachers, and they can learn from each other.

Out of my nine to ten teachers I had in elementary school, seven of them were African American Black women and men. My first-grade teacher was an African American woman, my third-grade teacher was a Hispanic woman, fourth grade was an African American woman, and sixth grade was an African American woman. I had three principals and two of the three were African American Black men. I had that early. And I didn’t realize that until President Barack Obama started talking about it when he was first elected. He was saying there were children that go through their whole career and never have a teacher who looks like them. I realized, “Oh wow, wait a minute. That wasn’t me. I actually did have those early African American and Hispanic American educators.”

In my teaching career, I started to recognize some disconnect between some of my colleagues and some of my students; differences in the relationship I could build, that they couldn’t build- the way that I engaged students was very different.

I remember someone asking me, “How do you do that?” and I said, “How do I do what?” “How do you build rapport with students and how are you able to relate to them?” I just related to them. I grew like these kids. I am these kids. I just went to college and have to wear a tie every day, but I am these kids. All of these kids are all of my homeboys and friends from Corpus Christi, Texas. My principal, who was a white woman, was struggling with understanding how a Black man built so much rapport with the Hispanic kids. Her exact words were, “You are not Hispanic.” I told her, “Well, I grew up in Corpus Christi. That’s Selena. That was a Hispanic city. All my friends I played football with were Hispanic. The girls I tried to flirt with were Hispanic”. I had a rapport with the Black students because a lot of the students in the magnet program were coming from the high poverty Black area. I grew up high poverty. So, that’s how I was able to relate to those students.

It dawned on me that I can’t explain how I do the things I do and crack the jokes I crack because – that’s just what we do in my community and my culture. We crack jokes on each other. We talk a certain way. We walk a certain way. We have a certain kind of swag. And, I couldn’t teach that to other people. I can only share my culture. I realized, “If you bring more people like me, we will have less problems in the school and academics will increase, and kids would actually enjoy coming to school”.

This was affirmed for me when I was an assistant principal and had gone to my doctoral program at Texas A&M. I learned about cultural responsiveness and cultural relevance, Dr. Geneva Gay and Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, and I learned about Afro-centricity and Afro-centrism and I said, “Wow. This is why I was able to build a relationship, and never have behavior problems. Ever.” Loudest classroom in the building. Desks tore up, room tore up, books everywhere – but I had some of the highest scores and the highest passing rates- because it was culture responsiveness and cultural relevance. I incorporated all students’ culture and community inside the school.

The reason I do that is because I’m these kids. I’m them. They see me. I had a couple of them tell me, “You remind me of my uncle. You remind me of my dad. You remind me of my older brother”. They’d call me Daddy or Uncle. They’d call me those names because culturally, I was. In many cultures, Uncles, Dads, Aunts, and Mothers are not always blood related, but community related. Dad can be the neighborhood grocer or the barber, while Auntie can be mom’s best friend or even the schoolteacher whose been at the school for over 30 years.

I even connected with the white students because they were from the same high-poverty area culturally, socially, economically, with the same or similar lived experiences. So, that’s when it hit me, “It’s not just racial, it’s also cultural, economic, and social”. I can relate to high-poverty children because I grew up in high poverty. I’m not high poverty now, but I know what to do when the lights go out and there’s flooding outside. I knew where the Human Resource building is to go get food stamps. I know how to do that stuff because I’m those children. I even know how to help parents get those resources because I’m those children. I used to go with my mom to the section 8 office, to renew our food stamps, and to buy groceries.

Join us in advocating for a more diverse teacher workforce in Colorado. Sign the petition to tell lawmakers you support SB21-185 today!

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